Renewable Energy to Surpass Coal and Nuclear by 2030: 7 Key Takeaways from EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook 2016

, director of energy research, Clean Energy | July 11, 2016, 12:13 pm EST
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As a certified energy geek, I always look forward to this time of year. On July 11 and 12, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) is holding their annual conference to discuss current energy technology, market, and policy issues, and will present results from their new Annual Energy Outlook (AEO) 2016 report.

One of the headlines this year is EIA’s new projections for renewable energy, which under their reference case is expected to surpass nuclear power by 2020 and coal by 2028 to become the second largest source of U.S. electricity generation after natural gas (see Figure 1 below).

Here are seven key takeaways from AEO 2016 that explain why EIA is projecting such a large increase in renewable energy this year:

1. Federal tax credits and Clean Power Plan drive growth in renewables

EIA’s reference case includes the recent five-year extension of the federal production and investment tax credits for wind and solar passed by Congress in December 2015, and implementation of EPA’s Clean Power Plan (CPP). While the U.S. Supreme Court put a temporary hold on the rule in February 2016 until the merits of the case are decided, EIA decided to include the CPP in the reference case because the rule has not been overturned.

Renewables surpass coal and nuclear

Figure 1. Renewables surpass nuclear power by 2020 and coal by 2028. Renewables include wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, and hydropower. Source: EIA, Annual Energy Outlook 2016.

The federal tax credits, state renewable electricity standards (RESs), and continued cost reductions for wind and solar will drive significant growth in renewables though 2021 (Figure 1). During this time, EIA actually projects natural gas generation to decline slightly as wind and solar are more cost-effective with the tax credits.

After the CPP targets kick in 2022, EIA projects both renewables and natural gas to grow as the two most cost-effective ways (along with a modest increase in energy efficiency) for states to replace coal and comply with the CPP. These results are consistent with recent analyses by UCS, NREL and the Rhodium Group.

2. Wind and solar lead growth in renewables

The renewable energy (including wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, and hydropower) share of U.S. electricity generation grows from 13 percent in 2015 to 24 percent in 2030, and 27 percent in 2040, with almost all of the growth from wind and solar PV (Figure 2).

This is because continued cost reductions are projected for these technologies beyond the 60-70 percent cost reductions already achieved since 2009. Under EIA’s reference case with the federal tax credits and CPP, U.S. wind capacity nearly doubles by 2022, reaching 144 GW, while US solar capacity grows five-fold by 2030, reaching 125 GW. Geothermal increases a significant amount in California and the Southwest, but provides a relatively small share of US electricity generation.

EIA also projects virtually no growth in hydro or biopower. Despite EIA’s inaccurate assumption that all biomass feedstocks are carbon neutral, biopower is still not economically competitive with wind, solar, and natural gas.  The lack of growth in hydro and biomass is consistent with recent analyses by UCS, NREL, and Rhodium Group that include the federal tax credit extension and CPP.

Renewable energy generation AEO 2016

Figure 2. Renewable electricity generation by fuel. Geothermal = red, biomass = gray. Source: EIA, Annual Energy Outlook 2016.

3. Renewable generation increases in all regions of the country by 2030

The biggest increases occur in the West and Plains, which have abundant, low cost wind, solar, and geothermal (Figure 3).  The Southeast also sees a big increase in solar as costs continue to fall.  The Northeast and Mid-Atlantic see a smaller increase in renewables and a bigger increase in natural gas.

The Southeast also sees a modest increase in nuclear generation due to five new reactors currently under construction or operating in Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee. This growth offsets a modest reduction in nuclear generation in Mid-Atlantic and Northeast states where EIA assumes a small number of existing plants will retire before their current operating licenses expire. (Note that the retirement of Diablo Canyon in California is not included as the announcement was made after EIA completed its modeling). The Midwest/Mid-Atlantic states also see the greatest reduction in coal generation and the largest increase in natural gas.

Regional electricity generation AEO 2016

Figure 3. Renewables increase in all regions under the Clean Power Plan. Source: EIA, Annual Energy Outlook 2016.

4. Renewables generation varies under different Clean Power Plan implementation scenarios

Generation difference CPP cases AEO 2016

Figure 4. Cumulative difference in generation in the CPP vs. the no CPP case. Renewables = green, natural gas =blue, and coal = black. Source: EIA, Annual Energy Outlook 2016.

EIA projects renewable generation to increase the most if states chose rate-based rather than mass-based targets as part of their CPP compliance strategies. Broader regional trading with mass-based targets also results in more renewables, less natural gas, and less reduction in coal than the more limited trading assumed in the reference case.

Not surprisingly, in their “extended case” EIA found that continuing to increase the CPP emission reduction targets through 2040 (the current program only goes through 2030) would result in more renewables and natural gas, and less coal than the reference case.

5. Increasing renewable energy is affordable

EIA projects that average retail electricity rates would be 3 percent higher between 2025-2030 in the reference case (with the CPP) than in the no CPP case.  However, total U.S. electricity expenditures would only be 1.3 percent higher in the CPP case over the same period because EIA assumes a modest increase in energy efficiency investments to comply the CPP.

A recent analysis by UCS found that energy efficiency could make a much larger contribution to state compliance with the CPP that would result in cumulative net savings to consumers of $30.5 billion between 2016 and 2030.

6. Renewables are competitive despite lower natural gas prices

While EIA’s natural gas price projection is lower in AEO 2016 than it was in AEO 2015 (Figure 5), large amounts of wind and solar are still competitive due to continued cost reductions and the federal tax credit extension.

EIA projects natural gas prices to double by 2025, due primarily to an increase in LNG exports, and greater natural gas use in the electricity and industrial sectors. The competition from renewables helps avoid greater reliance on natural gas that could increase natural gas prices even further.

Natural gas prices AEO 2016

Figure 5. Average Henry Hub spot prices for natural gas (2015 dollars per million Btu).

7. EIA is finally using more realistic cost assumptions for renewable energy

UCS has been an outspoken critic of EIA’s pessimistic renewable energy projections and assumptions for many years. We have written several blog posts on the topic and provided input directly to EIA on a few of their analyses and as a participant on several EIA modeling working groups. We also use a modified version of EIA’s National Energy Modeling System (NEMS) in-house to show how renewables could make a larger contribution to the US electricity mix at a much lower cost when using more realistic assumptions.

One of the main reasons why EIA’s projections have fallen short is because they have consistently overestimated the cost of renewable energy technologies like wind and solar. They often lag a few years behind what’s happening on the ground. However, this year is different. For AEO 2016, EIA finally lowered their costs for wind and solar to be more in-line with cost data from a large sample of recent projects, as documented by DOE’s national labs and the national wind and solar trade associations.

In EIA’s defense, their reference case for each AEO only reflects state and federal energy policies that were enacted at the time they do their projections, as discussed extensively in a recent EIA report. With Congress allowing federal renewable energy tax credits to lapse several times before extending them for relatively short periods, and states adopting and increasing renewable electricity standards (RES) many times over the past two decades years, it is somewhat understandable that EIA’s projections of renewable energy development have fallen short of reality.

While future EIA conferences and AEOs may highlight different topics, I’ll remember 2016 as the year EIA turned the corner to show a bright future for renewables.

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  • James Tyrer

    These projections are interesting. However, they have little meaning when discussed in the apparent context of the Green fairy tale that 100% renewables (wind and solar). I see no mention of that fact that Capacity Factors for wind and solar change very little and so they will still need backup power. This usually means natural gas. So, we should not be surprised that natural gas has grown ahead of renewables.

    In effect, what is predicted to happen is that some coal will be replaced with natural gas while renewables will also increase. It is good to see a reduction in coal predicted. However, if it is all replaced with natural gas, and nuclear power does not increase, it must be pointed out that despite some growth in renewables that this is not going to result in the necessary reductions in the emissions of Carbon Dioxide to prevent continued Climate Change. The IPCC report was quite clear that if the world is going to meet our GHG reduction goals that nuclear power must increase.

    • Donald

      Or we could accept lower standards of living until we figure out how to use less life-threatening sources of electricity. Our species has gone without electricity for a fair amount of our lifespan, so going with temporarily reduced electricity probably won’t even be that bad.

      That being said, I am for nuclear power. I think that can be managed. I’m just not for coal, oil, or gas.

  • john

    Two words. Moore’s law. PV panels will be the cheapest source of electricity in 5 years and in a decade they will dominate power installations. Can you say free power in the daylight and expensive power at night?

    • James Tyrer

      You obviously have no idea what Moore’s Law is. It does not apply so solar PV panels because they do not scale down. Silicon solar PV cells are nearing the end of their cost reduction learning curve. There is still room for a little more reduction in the price of the panels due to automation in their manufacture.

      What will reduce the cost of PV panels will be a disruptive new technology that will result in a lower cost per Watt. And, this is likely to happen before 2030.

      It should also be pointed out that a fixed solar PV panel has only a < 50% Capacity during daylight hours (not accounting for the weather) due to the changing angle of the sun in the sky.

  • solodoctor

    Thanks for pointing out that the cost of renewables is competitive despite the lower costs of nat gas. Also, for UCS’s work to get the EIA to employ more realistic cost projections for renewables. Hopefully, EIA’s having ‘turned the corner to show a bright future for renewables’ will lead to a greater development of these sources of energy in the years to come. We still have a long way to go in this regard!

  • TimS

    So it is also good news for natural gas/fracking industry, it will be needed more fossil fuels to compensate intermittency of wind/solar bird-choppers/landscape-destroyers while carbon-free nuclear power is phased out.
    “Basically, the low cost of renewable energy today is thanks to the low cost of fossil fuels.”