Wind Beats Out Natural Gas To Become Top Source Of New Electricity Capacity For 2012

Through June of 2012, renewable energy was right behind natural gas in terms of the most new energy generating capacity being installed in the United States, with wind making up most of the renewables push. And now Business Insider has flagged the numbers for the remainder of the year.

Last week, they reported that wind ultimately pulled ahead of natural gas to become the leading installer of new capacity in 2012, at 10,689 total megawatts.

Those numbers came from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s report on the trends and highlights in U.S. energy for the past year. According to FERC’s update, natural gas installed 8,746 megawatts of new capacity, coal installed 4,510 new megawatts, and solar came in fourth with 1,476 new megawatts. Here’s the relevant table from the report, conveniently highlighted by Business Insider:

One thing to note here is the issue of capacity factor: That’s how much power an installation actually produces as a percentage of its theoretical capacity. (Which is what’s listed in the table.) Natural gas plants do quite well in this regard: Their median performance tends to come out to at least 80 percent, and they max out at 93 percent, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s cost database.

Unfortunately, wind power doesn’t perform as well, due to the intermittency of, well, wind. Its median tends to be around 40 percent offshore. Onshore it’s been at 30 percent, though arguably onshore performance is pulling alongside offshore. And both max out at 50 to 54 percent. So even though wind beat out natural gas for new capacity in 2012, the new natural gas installation will almost certainly wind up generating more total electricity.

The good news for wind is that it’s still a relatively young technology, with lots of room to improve. The energy it does deliver is produced much more efficiently in comparison to natural gas — the former loses less than one percent of its energy as waste heat, while the latter can lose as much as 54 percent. Natural gas production in the U.S. may be on track to plateau, leading to predictions of rising prices, which will give wind power a further economic opening.

And, of course, there’s the fact that, while cleaner than coal, natural gas remains a contributor to greenhouse gas emissions both through leaks and combustion.


As it turns out, this post’s math was unjustly critical of wind energy. The numbers for capacity are theoretical, but as as an email commenter pointed out, the numbers for capacity utilization are theoretical as well.

So how have wind and natural gas actually performed? Well, in 2010, nameplate capacity for natural gas was 467.2 gigawatts, and 39.5 gigawatts for wind. That same year, natural gas generated 987,700 gigawatthours and wind generated 94,700 gigawatthours. Multiply the capacities by the 8760 hours in a year, and what you get is natural gas produced 24.1 percent of its nameplate capacity in 2010, and wind produced 27.4 percent.

Now, a lot of “peaker” power plants — ones intended to only operate during hours of peak electricity demand — are gas-fired. Around half the natural gas plants in the country probably fall into this camp, which will dramatically skew natural gas’ capacity utilization to the low end. So factor in peakers and natural gas still probably beats out wind, but by less than our piece implied.

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18 Responses to Wind Beats Out Natural Gas To Become Top Source Of New Electricity Capacity For 2012

  1. We need a smart grid NOW …..

  2. Paul Klinkman says:

    What maniacs put one nuclear power plant online in 2012?

  3. Sasparilla says:

    Amazing in all this and with such low natural gas prices that much new Coal capacity came online, simply amazing.

    Nice to see that much capacity added with wind, at least we’ll have one year where it was the biggest capacity addition.

  4. Joe Romm says:

    What’s skewed? This is amazing.

  5. MarkfromLexington says:

    The 125MW in additional nuclear capacity isn’t coming from a new plant. I’m reasonably sure that the increase in nuclear power generating capacity comes from uprating the capacity of an existing plant.

  6. Seems like the great performance in new wind capacity (and pretty good solar too, considering obstacles) ought to dilute the conventional meme that coal generation has declined recently specifically due to low natural gas prices.

    Pending a solid analysis, it seems worth mentioning new wind capacity as well, in that regard. MSM please note. :-)

    It’s a whole different energy world where wind power is significantly displacing fossil fuel, and not just one fossil against another.

    (And any such trend is likely to be missed looking at the conventional EIA stats, which focus mainly on fossil fuel emissions, so don’t highlight non-fossil trends.)

  7. _Flin_ says:

    Tjank you for pointing out the data about performance. Tends to get overlooked. Nevertheless, wind is cheap and needs no resources.

  8. Noel Kendall says:

    At a grassroots level, I have made it possible to offset carbon emissions through voluntary donation – donators rase the price of their carbon, while I offset by living a 100% bicycle lifestyle even in the Canadian winter. No need to wait, wait, wait for carbon taxes to save the planet – those who know higher carbon prices are a big part of the solution can act today. Carbon credits purchased through donations are used for low carbon footprint fuel (i.e. food).

  9. Daniel Coffey says:

    Now, that’s what I am talking about! Large-scale wind power and solar PV are the answer. All we need is to deploy them, and fast. China is doing it; let’s do it too.

  10. Daniel Coffey says:

    One word of caution about name-plate installed capacity. The real question is not how much installed capacity exists, but how many kWhrs of production they are producing. A more realistic view looks at both.

  11. Joe Romm says:

    Uhh, did you read the whole piece?

  12. bill payne says:

    Five new generators are on track for completion this decade, including two reactors approved just a few weeks ago (the first new reactor approvals in the US in over 30 years). Those will add to the 104 reactors that are already in operation around the country and already produce 20% of the nation’s power.

    Those reactors will eat up 19,724 tonnes of U3O8 this year, which represents 29% of global uranium demand. If that seems like a large amount, it is! The US produces more nuclear power than any other country on earth, which means it consumes more uranium that any other nation. However, decades of declining domestic production have left the US producing only 4% of the world’s uranium.

    With so little homegrown uranium, the United States has to import more than 80% of the uranium it needs to fuel its reactors. Thankfully, for 18 years a deal with Russia has filled that gap. The “Megatons to Megawatts” agreement, whereby Russia downblends highly enriched uranium from nuclear warheads to create reactor fuel, has provided the US with a steady, inexpensive source of uranium since 1993. The problem is that the program is coming to an end next year.

    The Upside to a Natural Gas Downturn
    Marin Katusa, for The Daily Reckoning
    Monday April 2, 2012

  13. Tom P says:

    The natural-gas industry claimed at a DC event a couple of days ago that its advances in reducing anomalous or “fugitive” emissions from fracking systems are improving “so fast we can’t even measure them,” and that they’ll thus be way ahead of any emissions regs EPA concocts. One certainly hopes so. But even if all fracking operations were perfectly leak-free, natural-gas combustion still contributes CO2, just less than gasoline goes. Far better to emphasize non-emitting renewables with natural gas as a fallback, and dirty fossil fuels like petroleum and coal banned outright as soon as possible. This is no time for equivocation.

  14. Dr.A.Jagadeesh says:

    Yes. Wind is the major contribution of Renewable Energy in US. There is wide scope to harness offshore Wind energy in US.
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

  15. Richard Fedder says:

    Does anyone have a reference to a scientific analysis showing 4% leakage of methane makes fracking more polluting than than burning coal. I am a member of SAFE — Southern Illinoisans Against Fracking our Environment. We are currently at a critical stage of trying to persuade our legislators to support a moratorium on fracking, rather than a regulatory bill.

    This scientific information on greenhouse effect could be valuable, if we can state it clearly and precisely.

    Richard Fedder

  16. Last week, they reported that wind ultimately pulled ahead of natural gas to become the leading installer of new capacity in 2012, at 10,689 total megawatts.

    That is installed and not available during peak use. That is worse than useless.

  17. Mark says:

    Just a guess, but probably some of those new gas plants were needed to serve as back up for the wind plants.