US’ renewable energy production reaches all-time high in 2020

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Annual electrical production by all renewable energy sources combined (i.e., biomass, geothermal, hydropower, solar, wind) reached an all-time high last year in the US and provided more than a fifth of the nation’s electrical output. 

Electrical generation by US wind and solar set new records in 2020. In fact, it was 16.7% greater in 2020 than a year earlier, according to a SUN DAY Campaign analysis of new data just released by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

The latest issue of EIA’s “Electric Power Monthly” (with data through December 31, 2020) also reveals that solar-generated electricity – including distributed (e.g., rooftop) solar – expanded by 24.1% (compared to 2019) and provided almost 3.3% of the nation’s total. Wind grew by 14.1% and accounted for 8.3% of total generation. No other energy sources experienced similarly high growth rates. 

During the year, electrical generation by geothermal energy and hydropower also increased – by 9.4% and 1.1% respectively, but that from biomass fell by 2.5%.

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While total US electrical generation from all sources decreased by 2.7% – due at least in part to the Covid-19 pandemic, the electrical output by the combination of renewables increased by over 9.2%.

Collectively, renewables provided 20.6% of the country’s total electrical output – up from 18.3% a year earlier. In fact, renewables modestly surpassed an EIA forecast, issued just two weeks ago, of 20.0% of U.S. electricity coming from green sources in 2020. 

For perspective, renewable sources accounted for 13.6% of U.S. electrical generation at the end of 2015 and just 10.4% at the end of 2010. Thus, renewables have doubled their share of the nation’s electrical generation over the past decade. 

Moreover, as forecast by the SUN DAY Campaign a year ago, renewables’ share of US electrical generation in 2020 eclipsed that of nuclear power (19.5%) and coal (19.1%).  

Renewable energy produced 7.8% more electricity than coal through December 2020. In fact, electrical generation by coal was 19.8% lower than a year earlier. In addition, renewable energy sources produced 5.6% more electricity than did nuclear power whose output fell 2.4% during the same twelve-month period.  

And in what appears to be a harbinger of things to come, the increase in new electricity from wind and solar was greater than the increase in electrical generation by natural gas. That is, during 2020, solar and wind produced 67,365 gigawatt-hours (GWh) more than they did in 2019. By comparison, electrical generation by natural gas increased by only 30,934 GWh. While it continued to provide the largest share (39.9%) of the nation’s electrical output, natural gas grew by only 2.0% during the year. It actually dropped by 8.6% in November and by 4.7% in December, compared to the corresponding months in 2019. 

SUN DAY Campaign’s executive director Ken Bossong, said: “With wind and solar costs continuing to drop and more supportive leadership now in Washington, D.C., the prospects for even stronger growth in 2021 and beyond seem very promising.

“Within the next five years, renewables will probably be providing more than a quarter of the nation’s electrical generation … and quite possibly more.”