Renewable energy just passed a major milestone in the United States

For the first time ever, wind and solar accounted for 10 percent of U.S. electricity generation.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki
CREDIT: AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

This past March, for the first time in U.S. history, more than 10 percent of all electricity generated came from wind and solar, according to a new report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

In 2016, solar and wind made up, on average, about seven percent of all U.S. electricity generation.

Because generation reflects the availability of resources like wind and sunlight at a given time, EIA forecasts that wind and solar generation likely exceeded 10 percent in April. Wind generation in states like Texas and Oklahoma, which account for much of the current U.S. wind capacity, tends to be highest in spring months. Solar power generation, by contrast, tends to be highest in summer months, due to the increased amount of daylight.

According to EIA, Texas accounted for the largest total amount of wind and solar generation in the United States in 2016. Most of that was from wind — Texas is by far and away the nation’s largest producer of wind energy, and has enough installed wind capacity to generate more than 18,500 megawatts, according to the EIA. Texas greatly expanded its renewable energy capacity under former Gov. Rick Perry (R), now Secretary of Energy in the Trump administration. Thus far in his tenure at the Department of Energy, however, Perry has been criticized by wind and solar advocates for working to undermine, not expand, renewable energy production.

Overall installed wind capacity — defined as the total amount of output a particular electricity generator can produce at a specific time, under specific conditions—passed hydropower in 2016 to become the largest source of renewable energy capacity in the United States. It now ranks fourth overall, behind coal, natural gas, and nuclear.


The solar industry also saw a record-breaking 2016, installing more megawatts of solar power across the United States than ever before. For the first time ever, solar power was the number one source of new generating capacity in the United States.

Renewable energy has become more widespread in recent years thanks in large part to a combination of state-level policies — like renewable standard portfolios, which require states to obtain a certain percentage of their power from non-fossil fuel sources — the declining cost of renewable technology, and tax incentives. In 2015, Congress passed a long-term extension of both the solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC) and the wind Production Tax Credit (PTC), ensuring that both industries have some measure of tax and regulatory certainty through 2021.

Still, renewable energy generation currently constitutes a fairly small sliver of actual electricity generation in the United States. The heavy-hitters remain fossil fuel-powered generation, namely natural gas and coal.

The Trump administration, for its part, has denied that it favors traditional fuel sources over renewable energy. Recently, in a hearing on Capitol Hill, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke told representatives that the administration does not “value oil and gas over alternative energies.” But the administration’s policies tell a different story; it has proposed cutting the Energy Department’s renewable and energy efficiency program by almost 70 percent, and the Energy Department is currently conducting a review of the energy grid potentially aimed at undermining renewable energy in favor of coal.


But the Trump administration’s pledge to revive the declining coal industry is likely to run into significant headwinds. According to new analysis from Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), the cost of renewable energy is likely to continue to drop in the coming years, making renewable energy extremely cost-competitive with fuels like coal and natural gas. As a result, BNEF estimates that U.S. coal generation will drop by 51 percent by 2040.

Renewable energy advocates argue that the falling cost of renewable energy, coupled with the shift towards clean-energy economies created by the Paris climate agreement, will create major opportunities for both investment and job creation. Under Trump, it seems unlikely that the United States — which has already voiced its intent to withdraw from the Paris agreement — will see any large push, at least from the federal level, in renewable energy investment. But the trend looks to continue globally, even without the United States: recently, China announced that it would invest $360 billion in clean energy by 2020, which they estimate will create 13 million new jobs.