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

November 3, 2015 | 3:51 pm
John Rogers
Energy Campaign Analytic Lead

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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John Rogers is a senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists with expertise in clean energy technologies and policies and a focus on solar, wind, and natural gas. He co-managed the UCS-led Energy and Water in a Warming World Initiative, a multi-year program aimed at raising awareness of the energy-water connection, particularly in the context of climate change, and motivating and informing effective low-carbon and low-water energy solutions.