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Posted on January 25, 2013

Clean Energy Cliffhanger: New Renewables Nearly Topped Traditional Fossil Fuels in 2012

By Jonathan Marshall

Cantua Solar Station

PG&E continues to add solar power to its energy mix, including the 20-megawatt Cantua Solar Station in Fresno County. (Currents Archive Photo.)

The marathon race to supplant polluting fossil fuels with clean energy turned downright exciting last year, as additions of wind, solar, and other renewable energy capacity to the U.S. electric grid came within just a hair of surpassing the generating capacity of new coal- and gas-fired power plants.

Official numbers released by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission put the nation’s new renewable capacity last year at 12,959 megawatts (MW), just behind the 13,256 MW from reigning fossil technologies.  New nuclear capacity, which was also free of greenhouse gas and other air emissions, came in at 125 MW.

Among renewable sources, wind dominated with 10,689 MW, followed distantly by solar with 1,476 MW. Biomass contributed 543 MW of new capacity and geothermal added 149 MW. PG&E began delivering power from several important renewable projects last year, with much more to come in 2013.

In 2011, the race wasn’t nearly as close. Fossil-fueled generation accounted for 60 percent of new capacity, versus 40 percent for renewables. Last year the split was 50-49, even as the total amount of new generation jumped 21 percent year over year.

Full disclosure: these capacity numbers are rigged heavily to favor renewables. They represent maximum output when the sun shines and the wind blows, not dependable, 24/7 power. A typical gas-fired plant operates more than 80 percent of the time, compared to less than 40 percent for most wind generation and even less for solar.

wind power

Wind remained the dominant source of new renewable power in 2012 as the United States added more than 10,000 megawatts.

Moreover, as we’ve pointed out before, these diverse forms of energy aren’t always real competitors. Gas-fired plants are vital partners with intermittent sources of renewable energy, since they can ramp up and down to offset the varying contribution of wind and solar generation.

So think of it as a friendly race among cooperating forms of energy—with you, the customer, the ultimate winner as the total supply increases and the mix becomes cleaner.

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