New U.S. Power Plants Entirely Renewable in July

Solar panels were a big part of the 405 new megawatts of America's renewable generating capacity that went on in July | Photo: Chandra Marsono/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Every single U.S. electrical power plant that came online in July was a renewable energy plant, according to the federal agency that regulates the nation's power grids. The July "Energy Infrastructure Update" published this week by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), reports that all of the 405 megawatts' worth of new electrical generating capacity going into service in that month derives its power from wind, sun, or water.

Between July 1 and 31, 379 megawatts of wind power generating capacity went online, along with 21 megawatts of solar and five megawatts of hydroelectric capacity, that last from a small dam outside Ketchikan, Alaska.

In that same time period, not a single fossil-fueled power plant went online: no coal, oil, or natural gas.

"This is not the first time in recent years that all new electrical generating capacity for a given month has come from renewable energy sources," noted Ken Bossong, Executive Director of the SUN DAY Campaign. "And it is likely to become an ever more frequent occurrence in the months and years ahead."

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July is a bit of a statistical outlier for the year so far in that 20 new natural gas power plants have come online in the U.S. since New Year's. Nonetheless, renewables are still outstripping fossil fuels so far in 2014. Since January 1, according to FERC, those 20 new natural gas-fired plants have contributed 2,185 megawatts of new power generation to the country's complex network of power grids. Three oil-fired power plants making up a total of 11 megawatts of capacity also came online in 2014.

In the same seven-month period, however, 2,573 megawatts of renewables have come online. Most of that new renewable capacity is wind and solar, with geothermal, biomass, and hydro accounting for 140 megawatts of new power.

If you crunch the numbers, that means more than half of new American power plant output coming online so far in 2014 has been renewable: a smidgen under 54 percent of the total.

Also noted in the July Energy Infrastructure Update: the Sacramento Municipal Utility District was given a new license for the Upper American River Hydroelectric Project, an existing power project that generates 637 megawatts of power at peak output. That new license authorizes SMUD to start building the proposed Iowa Hill Pumped
Storage Development, which would provide 400 megawatts of power storage to help grid operators match the state's power supply with its demand.

When built, the project would store energy by pumping water from the existing Slab Creek Reservoir on the South Fork of the American River to a new 109-acre reservoir 1,200 feet higher. Pumping would take place when demand is low and renewable energy abundant. When SMUD needs more power than its renewable sources offer, that water would run back downhill through a set of hydroelectric turbines. SMUD expects Iowa Hill will store energy with 80 percent efficiency, meaning that for every hundred megawatt-hours it spends pumping water uphill, it will recover 80 megawatt-hours when that water runs back downhill through those turbines.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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