As the Obama administration deliberates on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline crossing the US border from Canada, the industrial pursuit of domestic green energy—hydropower, wind, and solar projects—continues at a modest pace, with hydroelectricity generation still leading the renewable pack. North American hydroelectric consumption, however, did see a slight decline of 6.3% in 2012, according to Plunkett Research Ltd., attributed to a below-average year due to widespread droughts.
The U. S. Energy Information Administration reports that renewable energy sources provided about 12% of total US utility-scale electricity generation in 2012, up slightly from 11.83% in 2011, and 10.7% in 2010. The largest share of the renewable-generated electricity derives from hydroelectric power (56%), followed by wind (28%), biomass wood (8%), biomass waste (4%), geothermal (3%), and solar (1%). Coal (37%), natural gas (30%), nuclear power (19%), and petroleum (2%) remain the other primary sources of domestic energy production.
Wind power in the United States has grown dramatically from 11,187 megawatts of electricity in 2003 to 140,089 MW in 2012. Nationwide, investors directed $25 billion into wind energy in 2012, with US wind farms reaching 60 gigawatts of capacity, according to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA). In 2013 alone, construction began on wind projects across 13 states, slated to generate more than 2,300 MW of electricity. Texas remains firmly entrenched as the leader in wind power development, with seven of the 10 largest wind farms in the nation, according to the US Department of Energy, followed by Iowa, California, Minnesota, and Washington, with additional projects in Alaska, Colorado, Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, and South Dakota.
The Maine Public Utilities Commission recently voted in favor of an offshore pilot wind project that, hopefully, will lead to commercial scale, floating offshore wind farms. Pending with the project is a $46 million DOE grant aimed at creating large offshore wind farms that can produce power at competitive rates. Farther south, the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities is deciding whether to approve a 25-MW demonstration wind project about three miles off the coast of Atlantic City, the state’s first offshore wind venture and the forerunner of a more expansive wind farm in federal waters.
In Missouri, Element Power US, owner and developer of the Mill Creek Wind Farm, and Kansas City Power & Light’s Greater Missouri Operations recently entered into a power purchase agreement for the 200-MW wind energy facility being constructed in Holt County. Once operational, the wind farm will be the largest in Missouri. And in the Blue Mountains of Utah, construction began in early December on an 80-MW wind facility, a project that qualified for $42 million of investment tax credits.
Utilities are poised to invest in more wind power because “it’s the smart thing for their ratepayers and their bottom lines,” says Emily Williams, AWEA senior policy analyst. “Xcel Energy, Detroit Edison, Austin Energy, Omaha Public Power District, and American Electric Power’s Public Service Company of Oklahoma have all pursued contracts in excess of their initial requests for more wind power generation because wind is saving their consumers money.”
On the solar energy front, both photovoltaic and concentrated solar power/thermal plants are experiencing significant technological innovation, including the use of polymers leading to more flexible solar panels and advanced nanotechnology. In 2012, CSP-generating units were the main source of electricity at 12 power plants in the United States—11 in California and one in Nevada.
According to the Solar Electric Power Association’s annual megawatt production rankings, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. in northern California led all utilities nationally in 2012 and installed more than 800 MW, an 80% increase over 2011. Its portfolio included nearly 630 MW of large-scale projects of which 50 MW were utility-owned. PG&E also interconnected more than 17,500 net metered systems in 2012. Southern California Edison ranked second with more than 190 MW of new solar power generation, driven primarily by 15,000 residential and nonresidential projects accounting for more than 150 MW. Public Service Electric and Gas Co. in New Jersey rounded out the top three utilities, and along with Jersey Central Power & Light and Progress Carolinas, was one of three utilities from the East Coast in SEPA’s top 10 rankings.
Sacramento Municipal Utility District, the only municipal utility to gain a national ranking, secured the ninth spot with nearly 70 MW of new solar power generation. Its portfolio was backed by the utility’s procurement of more than 50 MW of large-scale photovoltaic projects. Other utilities in SEPA’s top 10 rankings for 2012 included the Arizona Public Service Co., NV Energy, Tucson Electric Power Co., and the Hawaiian Electric Co. Utilities in the megawatt category were generally large, with a median of 1.1 million customers, compared to the median size of 300,000 for the top 100 utilities that participated in the survey.
With hydropower facilities generating 100,000 MW of renewable energy from coast to coast, the United States is the fourth largest producer of hydroelectricity in the world after China, Canada, and Brazil. The Grand Coulee Dam remains the fifth largest hydroelectric power facility in the world, and another six US hydropower plants, including Hoover Dam, are among the 50 largest in the world. The top 10 hydropower-generating states continue to be Washington, Oregon, New York, California, Alabama, Idaho, Tennessee, Montana, Arizona, and North Carolina.
The US Army Corps of Engineers also recently identified 223 potential sites for additional hydro development nationwide, based on criteria that a site must be capable of generating 1 MW or greater of hydroelectric power. According to the USACE study, the sites could combine for a cumulative output potential of 6,256 MW, although the Corps noted that only 2,818 MW of those would likely be economically feasible under assumptions made in the report.
To further bolster hydropower production, two bills were signed into law last August: the Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act (H.R. 267) and the Bureau of Reclamation Small Conduit Hydropower Development and Rural Jobs Act (H.R. 678). The former promotes the development of small hydropower and conduit projects and aims to shorten regulatory time frames for some low-impact hydropower projects, such as adding power generation to existing non-powered dams and closed-loop pumped storage. H.R. 678 authorizes small hydropower development at existing US Bureau of Reclamation-owned canals, pipelines, aqueducts, and other man-made waterways.
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