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By Samuel R. Avro on Feb 21, 2012 with 11 responses

How Much Can Renewables Bite Out of the Coal Pie?


20 Years Down the Road — Will There Be a Marked Change?

While sifting through data in the Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) Annual Energy Outlook 2012, I came across some tidbits that I thought would be interesting to share with readers and graphed it to bring out the points.

What we’re looking at here are the sources — and percentage of those sources — of the generating mix of electricity in the United States, as projected for the years 2012 and 2035.

In 2012, coal is projected to provide three and a half times the amount of electricity as renewables will. By 2035 that will be reduced to less than two and a half.

So while natural gas adds 1% to its share by subtracting it from nuclear, renewables manage to capture 4% from coal. While that may sound like a positive development at first, in reality, coal is still projected — by a wide margin — to be the dominant source of U.S. electricity generation, more than two decades into the future.

957 Billion Additional kWh of Electricity Needed

When breaking down the categories separately, growth in renewables (33%) comes in second to natural gas (39%), so growth is expected to be substantial. That said, despite its projected growth, the fact that in more than 20 years from now it is still projected to lag so far behind coal and natural gas, goes to show the uphill climb renewables have in making a significant dent on mature sources operating on such a large scale.

  1. By ben on February 22, 2012 at 8:44 am

    Thanks for highlighting the govt’s projection for the likely mix of America’s future power generation.  It reinforces an impression that fossil fuels will continue to dominate energy feedstocks.  These numbers will, however, prove inaccurate and probably by a pretty dcent amount, as they fail to calculate the dynamics resulting from marked increases in fossil fuel costs. Government agencies operate with a conservative institutional bias that always doubts until it receives and processes the data (my friends could regale you with anecdotes dating all the way back to when ‘energy’ was little more than an intern in a cubicle over in William Simon’s Treasury Dept.).  And while government is much more of a player, today, in the alternative energy marketplace, price remains the final arbiter.  One that note, prices (to include carbon mitigation) can be expected to fuel growth in renewables in the coming years,  EIA’s projections are likely miscalculated by nearly a decade with the biggest misjudgment on the NG/coal mix.  The next few years wil yield evidence of the necessary recalibration.
    Thanks for your daily exertions with CER.You have a solid work-product.  It;s good to know that someone is minding the store while the engineer pursues television stardom:)  

  2. By mac on February 22, 2012 at 2:27 pm

    The fact is that these statistics were put together by a government bureaucracy. That ought to set off warning bells immediately,

    “Official”  U.S. Gov, statistics are often old, old, old.  They are compiled by statisticians with degrees in economics, statistics, mathematics etc,. but not by actual participants in the economy.

    IEA stats often disagree with statistics from the EU statistical base, which in turn disagree with BP oil company statistics which are likewise at odds with the official line from the Sierra Club.

    Statistics are a snapshot of the past but not a reliable prediction of the future.  Statistics are gathered “after the fact”.

    And as Ben said, in the case of these semi-official projections by the IEA, I think they are simply wrong. 

    All government bureaus are subject to political influence including the IEA.

    Like Mark Twain said:  “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics”,:

    My approach to energy questions is entirely different.  I look at what is coming to market and technology .innovations that will soon be in you living room.  Right or wrong, this seems to me to be a better way to see what is actually happening in the world than to argue over a pile of dated statistics or projections made by people not really involved in the world economy. who are under political duress.

  3. By mac on February 22, 2012 at 4:23 pm


    For the last 5 or 6 years I have waded through the seemingly endless statistical quagmire , and often non-sensical arguments presented on R-Squared. (often against new technologies or renewables)

    Many people  say:  “We cannot”,  in regard to energy solutions.  I say: “”We can.”

    They laughed when some said cell phones would become ubiquitous (when they were the size of a brick and weighed as much)

    True enough, in 1998 only about 6 % of U,K. residents had cell phones.  Now there are more cell phones in England than there are residents.

    Hint: …….

    Simply, look at what’s happening in the real world, not the self-important, puffed-up world of government statisticians.

    This will require some real research (yuk)


  4. By mac on February 24, 2012 at 7:18 pm

    I am very interested in the IEA’s opinion on just about everything. since they “correctly” predicted Steve Jobs return to Apple and the fact that his ingenuity and marketing briiliance would turn Apple from a declining company into a power packed, money making machine and a Wall Street Darling. 

    Without the aid of IEA statistics, of course, no one would have seen this coming.

    Thank goodness, the IEA alerted us beforehand with a “Buy Apple” recommendation..

    • By Roy Wagner on August 16, 2012 at 7:46 pm

      Yes and don’t forget the Ceo of IBM who saw a worldwide need for 5 computers,

      Of course they would have been as big as Coal fired powerplant and distributed information on copper wires.

      Things change as innovation creates markets and destroys older models.

  5. By Russ Finley on February 24, 2012 at 7:55 pm

    Maybe a nuclear Renaissance with load following and modular designs will  facilitate growth of solar and wind. Combine that with low priced natural gas to smooth out the dips (valleys) caused by solar and wind variability and that projection might look very different.

  6. By Russ Finley on February 26, 2012 at 11:23 am

    Ben said:

    “And while government is much more of a player, today, in the alternative energy marketplace, price remains the final arbiter.”

    In general this is true. But what if government were to mandate the use of a given energy source? Price becomes disengaged from the normal equations governing a free market.

    If the goal is to replace coal, there is only one competitor out there capable of going toe to toe with it. Wind and solar can add total energy but they can’t cost effectively act as baseload in most places.

  7. By mac on March 4, 2012 at 10:06 pm


    Thanks for this great post and for your efforts on digging out the real facts on inflation adjusted gas prices.  Sorry to be a contrarian, but it looks to me like inflation adjusted gas prices make gasoline a relatively good bargain over the years.

  8. By James on March 7, 2012 at 12:32 am

    “New sewage gas station in OC may be world’s first”

    Thought you may want to see this… I thought it was impressive.

  9. By James on March 7, 2012 at 12:33 am

    Bill Gates: It’s ‘Crazy’ How Little Is Invested in Clean-Tech

  10. By James on March 7, 2012 at 12:35 am
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