Wind v. natural gas. Is it a race? To create electricity you need fuel. So you have to harvest naturally occurring resources—either the ones that exist above ground or the ones that exist underground. The underground resources—the legacy ‘go-to’ fuels that generate the U.S.’s cheap baseload electricity are coal, natural gas and uranium. The three fuels are responsible for about 86% of the electricity Americans use on a daily basis.

The Race between Wind and Natural Gas - Oil & Gas 360 - Generation-Utility-Scale-Facilities

However, coal is on the way out due to the efforts of global environmental activists, federal government policy, state renewable standards and the Obama administration’s self-declared ‘war on coal’. Natural gas has become the power industry’s preferred fuel when it comes to building new power plants, and highly efficient natural gas power plants are springing up everywhere as utilities replace older coal plants.

There is a lot to be said for the above ground resources—sunlight, wind and water. They are “free” fuels that are readily occurring much of the time—but you cannot rely on them to make electricity 24/7/365, which is the way the electric power grid and all of its users need their electricity. There’s no sunshine at night, water isn’t able to continuously fuel hydroelectric generation when reservoirs are low during times of drought, and when the wind blows less frequently, slower or not at all, the taxpayers’ turbines sit idle.

The EIA recently reported some interesting facts about wind generation.

(1) The agency pointed out that wind generation depends on money from taxpayers to proliferate: when wind energy was threatened by the looming expiration of tax credits in 2013, the growth of wind fueled power generation almost stopped.

(2) Slower wind speeds generate less electricity.

(3) Wind farms are frequently sited at long distances from electricity customers. When they are, an investment to build new transmission lines to take the wind-generated electricity from the wind farm to the cities becomes a necessity.

Here are some of the EIA data.

Wind

  • In 2015, wind was the second-largest source of electricity produced from renewable sources, behind hydroelectricity, and 11 states generated more than 10% of their total electricity generation from wind.
  • Increased use of non-hydro renewables—wind and solar—has largely been driven by a combination of state and federal policies, not by market forces.
  • Capacity additions in 2013 were at their lowest point since 1998, when 0.9 GW were installed, due in part to expiring tax credits that have since been extended.
  • Year-to-year changes in wind generation reflect both the changes in wind capacity and yearly variations in the wind resource.
  • Wind resources reflect seasonal wind patterns, which vary based on regional factors and are subject to year-to-year climate variations. At the state level, three states in the Pacific Census division—California, Oregon, and Washington—saw decreases in wind generation in 2015, as did most of the states in the Mountain Census division.
  • Texas continues to be the nation’s largest producer of wind energy. Texas accounted for 44% of all wind capacity additions in 2015, a year in which 17.7 GW of installed wind capacity in Texas produced nearly 45 TWh, accounting for 24% of all U.S. wind power.
  • Texas built a 3,600-mile transmission network that can connect wind-generated electricity from rural areas to urban load centers. That system and the strong winds on the Texas plains have helped enable the state’s substantial wind generation.
  • EIA’s most recent Short-Term Energy Outlook projects that wind generation will increase 16% in 2016, as significant capacity additions are expected to come online, adding another 6 GW, or 9%, to operating wind capacity in 2015.
  • Wind is projected to supply approximately 5% of U.S. electricity generation in 2016.

Natural Gas

  • Natural gas is projected by the EIA to produce a third of the electricity consumed in the U.S. in 2016, more than any other resource.

The 2016 Power Mix

Estimates for 2016: natural gas provides 33% of generation, coal provides 32%, non-hydro renewables are 8% – that includes wind at 5%, nuclear is 20%, and hydroelectric power is 6%.

If natural gas continues to overtake coal at the current pace, and if Washington doesn’t embrace policy to discourage the use of natural gas (the way it has for coal), it’s going to be a long time before you can say that wind and natural gas are even in a race.


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