Renewables to slowly chip away coal, natural gas generating capacity

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 822 views 

More than half of the electricity-generating capacity added to the U.S. grid this year is expected to be solar power as the rise in renewables, like wind and solar, is projected to reduce coal and natural gas generation, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

According to Lauren Waldrip, executive director of the Arkansas Advanced Energy Association, the projected 2,299 megawatts of new solar capacity expected to be added in Arkansas over the next five years would result in more than $3 billion in capital investment – providing new tax revenues for state, cities, counties and schools.

For example, Little Rock-based Delta Solar recently completed a 512-kilowatt array for Woodlawn School District in Cleveland County. The array sits on nearly 4 acres southwest of U.S. Highway 63 and Arkansas Highway 114 and is expected to offset more than 80% of the school district’s electricity demand, resulting in projected savings of about $1.5 million over the life of the system.

“Delta Solar is proud to partner with Woodlawn School District on a world-class solar array that will provide significant savings for the district and educational opportunities for students,” said Delta Solar CEO Douglas Hutchings. “This project aligns with our mission and values of education and delivering best-in-class solutions to our clients, focusing on rural communities.”

In a recent newsletter, Waldrip highlighted the benefits of the 2019 state law, the Solar Access Act, claiming it has led to more than $800 million in solar projects in Arkansas.

“Renewable energy generation provides consumer choice and free market principles,” Waldrip wrote. “Arkansans should have the freedom to decide how their property is powered in a free and fair market. Legislators should continue to knock down regulatory barriers, seek to end obstructionist utility practices and promote economic competition.

“In addition to lower energy costs, another benefit of consumer choice in power generation is that it doesn’t affect others,” she explained. “No one is forced to use solar or subsidize their neighbor’s choice to do so. Current law prohibits cost-shifts.”

She cited that the Solar Access Act, or Act 464, that gave authority to the Arkansas Public Service Commission to establish net-metering rates with guidance to ensure “no unreasonable allocation of costs to other utility customers.” A newly filed bill at the state legislature this session will set up a new battle between traditional utilities and solar companies. A story on this subject is coming mid-week.

In 2023, developers plan to add 54.5 gigawatts of new utility-scale electric-generating capacity to the U.S. power grid, according to the EIA. More than half of this capacity will be solar power (54%), followed by battery storage (17%). Texas and California will account for 41% of the 29.1 gigawatts in the planned solar capacity that’s expected to start operating this year. If it comes online as expected, this will more than double the record amount of utility-scale capacity that was added in a single year, which was 13.4 gigawatts in 2021. EIA defines a utility-scale generation as electricity from power plants with at least a 1-megawatt total capacity.

Recently, Little Rock-based Entegrity, an energy efficiency and solar company, announced plans to install a 4.15-megawatt array for Ridgeland, Miss.,-based egg producer Cal-Maine Foods Inc. The 28-acre array will be installed at the company’s egg production and processing plant in Searcy and is expected to offset about 91% of the facility’s electricity demand. The project is pending approval with the Public Service Commission, and Entegrity expects to start construction in the second quarter of 2023.

“We have recently seen an increased drive for solar solutions in Arkansas given the constructive regulatory environment, attractive potential returns on investments and enhanced commitment to sustainability goals,” said Entegrity President Michael Parker. “For more than 15 years and through nearly 350 projects, we have strived to partner with companies that share our vision of a sustainable future.”

Entegrity also recently announced the completion of a 1.75-megawatt solar array for El Dorado School District. The array is expected to offset 88% of the school district’s electricity demand, resulting in savings of more than $128,000 annually.

As a result of the new solar and wind projects coming online this year, the EIA expects these two energy sources to comprise 16% of total U.S. electricity generation in 2023, up from 14% in 2022 and 8% in 2018. Between 2022 and 2023, the total electricity generation from coal-fired and natural gas-fired power plants is expected to fall from 20% to 18% and from 39% to 38%, respectively.

At the end of 2022, the U.S. electric power sector operated about 74 gigawatts of solar photovoltaic capacity, nearly three times the capacity from the end of 2017. U.S. wind power has increased by more than 60% since 2017 to about 143 gigawatts of capacity.

By the end of 2024, solar is expected to comprise 6% of total U.S. electricity generation capacity. Meanwhile, wind is expected to account for 12% of the capacity. Coal and natural gas are projected to comprise 17% and 37%, respectively.