Wind and Solar Electrical Generation Set New Records in 2020

Electrical generation by U.S. wind and solar set new records in 2020. In fact, it was 16.7 percent 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). Similarly, annual electrical production by all renewable energy sources combined (biomass, geothermal, hydropower, solar, wind) reached an all-time high last year and provided more than a fifth of the nation’s electrical output.

The latest issue of EIA’s “Electric Power Monthly” (with data through Dec. 31, 2020) also reveals that solar-generated electricity, including distributed (rooftop) solar, expanded by 24.1 percent (compared to 2019) and provided almost 3.3 percent of the nation’s total. Wind grew by 14.1 percent and accounted for 8.3 percent 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 percent and 1.1 percent, respectively, but that from biomass fell by 2.5 percent. While total U.S. electrical generation from all sources decreased by 2.7 percent, due at least in part to the COVID-19 pandemic, the electrical output by the combination of renewables increased by over 9.2 percent. Collectively, renewables provided 20.6 percent of the country’s total electrical output, up from 18.3 percent a year earlier. In fact, renewables modestly surpassed an EIA forecast, issued just two weeks ago, of 20.0 percent of U.S. electricity coming from green sources in 2020.*

For perspective, renewable sources accounted for 13.6 percent of U.S. electrical generation at the end of 2015 and just 10.4 percent 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 U.S. electrical generation in 2020 eclipsed that of nuclear power (19.5 percent) and coal (19.1 percent). Renewables produced 7.8 percent more electricity than coal through December 2020. In fact, electrical generation by coal was 19.8 percent lower than a year earlier. In addition, renewable energy sources produced 5.6 percent more electricity than did nuclear power whose output fell 2.4 percent during the same 12-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 percent) of the nation’s electrical output, natural gas grew by only 2.0 percent during the year. It actually dropped by 8.6 percent in November and by 4.7 percent in December, compared to the corresponding months in 2019.

“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,” notes the SUN DAY Campaign’s Executive Director Ken Bossong. “Within the next five years, renewables will probably be providing more than a quarter of the nation’s electrical generation … and quite possibly more.”

*In its most recent “Short-Term Energy Outlook” report issued on Feb. 9, 2021, EIA stated that “electricity generation from renewable energy sources rises from 20 percent in 2020 to 21 percent in 2021 and to 23 percent in 2022.”

NOTE: Unless otherwise indicated, the electricity figures cited above include EIA’s “estimated small-scale solar photovoltaic” (rooftop solar systems), which account for almost one-third (31.5 percent) of total solar output and just a bit over 5 percent of total net electrical generation by renewable energy sources.

The latest issue of EIA’s “Electric Power Monthly” was officially posted late on February 24, 2021. For the data cited in this news update, see:

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