How Is Your State’s Electricity Mix Changing? A Mesmerizing Portrait of the Power Sector’s Evolution

, senior energy analyst, Clean Energy | November 3, 2015, 3:51 pm EST
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I came across an animated graphic (a GIF) showing how state electricity mixes have changed in recent years, and I just can’t pull my eyes away from it. What you see in the states’ hypnotic to-and-fro may depend on where you’re coming from, but when it comes to energy, one thing seems quite clear: The only constant is change.

Synapse state generation GIF (20150316)

How state electricity mixes are evolving (Source: Synapse Energy Economics)

The GIF, from Pat Knight at Synapse Energy Economics, almost speaks for itself. Here are five things I see in its undulating bars and what’s behind them:

  • Coal waning – This is probably the most visible dimension of the change in recent years—the dark section on the left of the GIF shrinks dramatically over time. Coal provided fully half of our electricity as recently as 2006. Now it’s down to below 40 percent, as the eroding economics of coal have asserted themselves. Many states have embraced a move away from coal—look at Colorado, Delaware, and Nevada, for example.
  • Natural gas growing – No surprise to people paying attention to the electricity sector over the last few years: gas has been on the rise. That’s been a big part of the decline of coal (and the rise of concerns about natural gas overreliance). Along with the states mentioned above, check out Florida, Mississippi, D.C., and others.
  • Renewables surging – The growth of an array of renewable energy options has been another reason King Coal is falling, the result of smart policies in a lot of forward-thinking states, and great cost reductions. Synapse’s Knight offers this great statistic: “In 2014, 11 states produced 10 percent or more generation from renewables (compared to zero states in 2005).”
  • Renewables surging (wind) – Wind, in particular, has become the technology to beat in many locations. It now accounts for more than 10 percent of generation in nine states, and more than 25 percent in two (Iowa and South Dakota).
  • Renewables surging (solar) – Just at the end of this GIF’s journey—for us, the beginning of now—a new technology starts to make its presence felt. Solar has begun to claim its share of the spotlight, with rapidly increasing scale and rapidly dropping costs. Hawaii leads in terms of penetration, with more than 1 in 8 households having solar panels.

The Synapse GIF is about how electricity gets made in each of our states, and how that’s changed over the years. Ultimately, though, this graphic is about us: About the choices we’re making, about transition and opportunity. About where technology, innovation, and smart policies can take us if we let them.

The changes visible in these undulations—the cleaner generation portfolios they show are possible—have strong implications for public health and climate change, for our communities, and even for our transportation sector.

All that leaves me wanting to see what’s next, to see what the 2015 data will show, and the 2016 after that… to see where the renewables upwelling will take us next.

While I’ll admit it’s probably a bit of a Rorschach test, that’s what I get out of this mesmerizing graphic.

So how about it: What do you see? If you can pull your eyes away long enough to weigh in, that is.

Posted in: Energy

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  • kjmclark

    There are some weird things going on in that chart. I stared at my state for a while, and the most puzzling thing was the increase in percentage from nuclear in recent years. I know of the major nuclear plants, and I can’t think of any real increases that should have come from them recently. Fermi III is supposedly in planning. But the chart shows that fraction increasing substantially, along with natural gas. The natural gas part makes sense, along with the reduction in coal. But the only thing that would seem to explain the increased share for nuclear would be a decrease in total generation. That seems like a stretch. We’ve had a marginal but growing economy since 2009 or so. Hmm.

    • ucsjrogers

      KJM, for Michigan, nuclear’s contribution has varied in recent years, from a low of around 22% in 2009 to a high of 30% last year. Part of that is variation in output from the nuclear units (2014 generation was more than 40% higher than 2009’s), and part of that is variation in in-state generation (2014 was about 13% below 2005 in Michigan, for example).

      For more on Michigan’s energy (and energy policy) scene, my colleague Sam Gomberg is a great one to follow: http://blog.ucsusa.org/author/sam-gomberg#.VkYr8L_geU8.

      – John

  • SGA2

    Yes, please slow it down, make the lines a little thicker, and have a pause when it reaches the present!

    • ucsjrogers

      Thanks, SGA; I’ll pass that advice on to Pat Knight. I agree that the present is worth pausing on — though, as I said in the post, I’m even more interested in the future! – John

  • Richard Solomon

    I agree with Dan that it’d be great if one could slow down the animation a bit.

    While I DO see a decline in the use of coal, there are still a number of states where it is a significant portion (50% or so) of their energy mix. I read another post recently about the Governor of WV acknowledging that coal is not going to be as important in the future as it has been in the past. How about other states which still rely heavily on the use of coal? What can be done to help nudge these states towards the use of other, renewable sources of energy?

    • ucsjrogers

      Thanks, Richard. You’re certainly right: the transition toward low-carbon energy is far from over. But we’ve come a long way, even in the last six or eight years, and there are a lot of positive trends.

      As for what more can be done, the answers lie at all levels:
      * There are the state fights — fights for progress and fights against
      backsliding. UCS’s supporters in each state are important voices for
      making sure that we get new laws and regulations that move us forward on
      clean energy.
      * At the federal level, the new EPA Clean Power Plan is an exciting development. It will certainly have consequences for coal, but the final plan also had good pieces for limiting the rush to gas (http://blog.ucsusa.org/rachel-cleetus/four-ways-the-final-clean-power-plan-limits-the-rush-to-natural-gas-839) and promoting renewables (http://blog.ucsusa.org/jeff-deyette/role-of-renewable-energy-final-clean-power-plan-838).
      * The Paris international climate negotiations that start at the end of this month (http://blog.ucsusa.org/tag/paris-international-climate-negotiations#.Vkf-YmtUXaE) will be another key venue for progress. My colleagues and many others will be working to make sure we make us much progress as possible during those two weeks, and that the ambitions of nations rise to the scale of the challenge.

      So thanks for all you and other UCS supporters do to help us make things happen at all those levels. There’s progress to be made, and we aim to make sure it happens.

      – John

  • ScottsIrish2

    I intensely dislike Gifs. Like overly busy website that have things moving from right to left and rapid changes of bits and pieces, these tech toys cater to an ADD minset, I refuse to fall into that trap and thus ignore and seek my information elsewhere.

    • ucsjrogers

      That’s certainly an option, SI2, and I can understand that. I wouldn’t propose it be the only source of information. But this one… this one just grabbed me, and I thought I’d pass it on.

      I can promise you that most of my posts won’t have GIFs in them, if that helps!

      – John

  • Nice–though I wish there were an easy way to slow down the animation. Some readers may be interested in this interactive map of U.S. power plants, based on the new eGrid 2012 database: http://physics.weber.edu/schroeder/energy/PowerPlantsMap.html

    Dan Schroeder
    Ogden, Utah

    • ucsjrogers

      Thanks, Dan, and thanks for that link.

      I agree that it’d be nice to slow the GIF down, pause it, rewind. I’ve actually gone back into the data myself to try to understand better what’s going on in particular states. So consider this GIF a teaser for future research or future blogposts.

      – John