Behold the gap between where we are and where we’re going with clean power in the U.S.
On the left is the breakdown of sources for U.S. electricity production this year. It’s a fossil-dominated system: Gas delivers around 38 percent, coal another 23 percent. Legacy nuclear and hydropower contribute the bulk of carbon-free production. The green slice, which is mostly wind and solar, looks puny by comparison.
But there’s a completely different picture on the right. In the breakdown of power plant capacity expected to come online this year, solar leads the pack. Solar and wind together make up 70 percent of expected new capacity in 2021 (per a January projection), after years of cost declines made them extremely cheap to build. Gas comes in a distant third for new construction, with only 17 percent market share.
In fact, the chart on the right likely undersells the current dominance of solar and wind. The U.S. Energy Information Administration dataset we used covers large-scale power plants, so there’s a chunk of small-scale, and largely rooftop, solar that is not counted here. And the purple sliver of nuclear won’t actually come online this year; it represents the perpetually delayed Vogtle plant in Georgia.
But while the addition of renewables to the grid is encouraging, it’s not easy to get rid of the existing dirty power. Utilities that own legacy polluting power plants typically have financial incentives to run them as long as possible, even when they become more expensive for their customers than clean alternatives.
Democrats in Congress considered a Clean Energy Performance Program that would reward utilities for getting cleaner over time and penalize the ones that didn’t. But that got stripped due to opposition from Senator Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia). The result is that federal policy could help more renewables get built, enlarging their slices of the right-hand chart, but it won’t directly squeeze the share of fossil power on the left-hand chart.
Renewables are winning in the market today, but that’s not yet enough to overcome the powerful legacy of fossil fuel electricity in the U.S.