U.S Renewables Hit 5%…Where’s the Celebration?

Between April 2011 and March 2012, the U.S. generated 5 percent of the country’s annual electricity from renewable sources, according to preliminary data from the Energy Information Administration.

To be exact, the U.S. generated 204 terawatt-hours (‘TWh”) out of 4,070 TWh from non-hydro renewables.

Putting this annual total of non-hydro renewable generation in context, this is:

  • More than the individual electrical usage of 197 nations (92 percent of all nations), including Indonesia, Mexico, Turkey, and Thailand.
  • More than the combined electrical usage of the Philippines, Switzerland, and Malaysia.
  • Enough electrical energy to power about 16 million American homes, deducting about 10 percent for transmission and distribution losses.

The data submission forms the EIA uses do not catch every last TWh, and indeed, don’t include solar photovoltaic generation from systems less than 1 megawatt in size. This smaller capacity segment includes most residential and commercial distributed PV systems.

Including these systems would likely add about another 0.1 percent of generation (so ~5.1 percent in total) based upon PV capacity from NREL’s Open PV Project data. Also, including small hydro (hydro <10 MW in capacity) in the mix would yield a non-large hydro renewable generation total above 6 percent, perhaps even above 7 percent.

What’s even more impressive is that non-hydro renewable generation has grown approximately 150 percent since 2004, primarily from utility-scale wind, with the preceding 13 years seeing basically no non-hyrdo growth.

Where’s the champagne?

So where are the celebratory announcements or at least press releases announcing the milestone? Or did any major print or online newspaper take the time to chronicle the climb to this milestone? Not that I’ve seen.

Instead, this landmark of having one out of every 20 electrons flowing throughout the U.S. grid generated by non-hydro renewables was met mostly with silence.

Is 5% Truly a Success?

Compared to some of our peers, perhaps not. Germany has about 20 percent annual renewable power generation, which can result in greater than 50 percent of electrical energy from just solar PV for short durations.

Sweden, Portugal, Finland, Spain, and Denmark also have non-hydro renewable power penetration well above the U.S..

In Asia, China is now experiencing very aggressive renewable power growth rates and indeed is ahead of the U.S. with the most non-hydro renewable power capacity installed. Japan may soon blow by many of these countries in non-hydro renewable penetration due to their need to replace the power of their shuttered nuclear power fleet.

In absolute terms, however, the U.S. still has a large presence in renewable power, leading all nations in project investing in 2011 according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.

But ultimately, 5 percent is shy of the pace detailed in Reinventing Fire, targeting over 80 percent of generation from non-hydro renewables by 2050, which would require about 7 percent as of the end of March, 2012.

What can be deemed a success is the decrease in the total amount of electrical generation driven by demand. Energy efficiency likely has had a lot to do with the year-over-year decrease in electrical energy generation for the first quarter of 2012 vs. 2011 even while the US has had nearly 2 percent GDP growth.

We appear to be heading toward an electrical demand year as low as 2009 (when the economy was in much rougher shape than today), and potentially the lowest we’ve seen since 2003. Perhaps the energy efficiency revolution is kicking into higher gear earlier than many had prognosticated.

The Takeaway

What might be the most relevant takeaway is that non-hydro renewable power is clearly moving beyond “niche” power. It’s a mainstream source that will increasingly challenge existing electricity generation and provision business models, particularly as distributed solutions (electric vehicles, demand response, PV, etc.) take off.

The growth of distributed energy solutions is one of the reasons for the recent launch of RMI’s Electricity Innovation Lab (“eLab”): to stimulate new ideas, energy, and commitment to solutions at the distribution edge of the electricity system, the interface between the electricity system’s macrogrid and the rapidly growing portfolios of energy assets, control systems, and end-use technologies.

Let’s celebrate this milestone. It’s not a small mark considering where we came from. But let’s not lose sight that the U.S. still lags many other countries in renewable generation penetration, and the true end-zone of a secure, clean, and resilient electricity system is still at the far end of the field.