The U.S. added more renewable electricity generating capacity last year than any other type, surpassing even booming natural gas installations. It was the second year in a row that renewable additions outpaced fossil fuels, signaling what might be a fundamental shift in the American power landscape.
At the same time, carbon emissions reached a 20-year low even as the economy grew by 2.4%, adding further evidence that economic growth is no longer coupled with fossil fuel emissions, as it has been in the past. Thanks to new renewables, the retiring of coal plants, and the opening of new natural gas-fired plants, the carbon footprint of the U.S.’s power industry is nearly 18% below 2005 levels, according to a new report released by the Business Council for Sustainable Energy.
Here’s Joe Ryan, reporting for Bloomberg Business:
“This is a long-term trend,” said Colleen Regan, a BNEF analyst who follows North American power markets. “System costs have really come down for renewables, which makes the case for installing them a lot stronger.”
Wind farms added the most generating capacity in 2015 at 8.5 GW, and solar photovoltaics added 7.3 GW. Retail power prices remained steady, suggesting that adding renewables may not significantly increase electricity bills.
The surge in new natural gas plants has encouraged utilities to retire aging and inefficient coal-fired plants, and low natural gas prices have helped keep both emissions and costs down. Natural gas now produces almost 33% of the nation’s power and is neck and neck with coal, which as recently as 2005 generated half of the U.S.’s electricity.
As the costs for wind and solar continue to drop, utilities are increasingly turning to renewables to add new or replace old generating capacity. According to financial advisory firm Lazard, costs for installing utility-scale renewables are now on par with or cheaper than coal and even natural gas. Renewables aren’t subject to fluctuating prices like fossil fuels, making them an attractive long-term investment for big utilities.