How Much Are Solar And Wind Really Contributing?

It’s inevitable: An article that mentions increases in renewable energy capacity, be it wind or solar, will be met with a smart-aleck comment that renewables don’t operate at capacity and therefore they suck.

Of course, the fact that renewables are variable producers is taken into account when assessing their value, and, it should be noted, even fossil-fuel plants don’t operate at 100 percent capacity on an annual basis. Still, installed capacity, while important, is of limited value and in the end it’s generation that counts (along with when the power is generated, but that’s another story).

So courtesy the National Renewable Energy Lab’s Renewable Energy Data Book [PDF], here are some good-looking charts that show the progress of solar and wind capacity and generation in the United States. First, wind:

wind capacity and generation

To put the 2012 total generation (140,089 gigawatt-hours) into perspective, that’s 3.4 percent of all the electricity generated in the United States in the year. Doesn’t sound like that much, but a decade ago it was barely a few tenths of a 1 percent.

Now solar:

solar capacity and generation

The 12,775 gigagwatt-hours of solar pumped out in 2012 made up just 0.3 percent of total electrical generation in the year. But here’s the hopeful thing: It was also 74.3 percent more solar generation than in 2011. And with the price of solar becoming more competitive, there’s every reason to think that high growth rates can be sustained.

Sports columnist, newspaper desk guy, website managing editor, wine-industry PR specialist, freelance writer—Pete Danko’s career in media has covered a lot of terrain. The constant along the way has been a fierce dedication to knowing the story and getting it right. Danko's work has appeared in Wired, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

  • daniel.burnette@gmail.com

    I’m proud to say that Iowa gets 25 percent of its electricity through wind!

    • Pete Danko

      Iowa is the wind superstar, no doubt about it.