President Donald Trump has done a lot for the oil and coal industries. Since taking office, he’s halted more than 30 costly environmental regulations, approved two large oil pipelines, and opened up more public land for drilling. “We have ended the war on American energy,” Trump said in January.
America’s energy production is indeed on the rise: More than 3 gigawatts have been added to the country’s electric grid this year, enough to power more than 2 million homes. Problem is, almost none of that new capacity came from fossil fuels. It came from renewable resources.
According to data from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), 95 percent of the energy capacity added in the first quarter of 2018 came from solar, wind, geothermal, and hydropower. Only about 3 percent came from natural gas. By comparison, in the first quarter of 2017, approximately 33 percent of new capacity came from natural gas and 61 percent came from renewables. (There’s been no new capacity from coal this year or last.)
So what’s going on? Is renewable energy defying the odds of the Trump administration’s pro-fossil fuel agenda? Or are this year’s surprising numbers just statistical anomalies?
Understanding the significance of FERC’s new data requires knowing the difference between capacity and generation. This year, America has added a lot of renewable capacity: the amount of megawatts that can be produced from solar and wind at any given time. Generation refers to how much power is actually being produced. “From a climate change perspective, what we ultimately care about is how much generation we get out of those clean power plants,” said John Rogers, a senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
New capacity, however, provides valuable insight into where electric utilities and private companies are investing their money for future power generation. So the first three months of 2018 indicate that these firms think renewables are a better investment than fossil fuels, even with Trump in office. “President Trump can put his thumb on the scales for coal all he wants, the market’s still not going to say yes to coal,” Rogers said. “Even with all these headwinds, you’ve got momentum around clean energy that shows we’re continuing to press forward, regardless of what’s coming out of the White House.”
Pavel Molchanov, an energy market analyst at the financial firm Raymond James, agrees that Trump’s pro–fossil fuel policies aren’t doing much to stymie renewable growth. “Wind and solar comprised half or more of new [capacity] additions in each of the past three years, and that percentage can be expected to rise over time,” he said. “The simple reality is that there are only three large-scale options: natural gas, wind, and solar. It would be ludicrous for anyone to invest in [new coal plants] given how dreadful the economics are.”
But three months of data isn’t enough to make a bold statement about long-term investment trends. “It would be a stretch for 100 percent of full-year 2018 capacity additions to be wind and solar,” Molchanov said. Indeed, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicted on Monday that the rest of 2018 will likely bring huge increases in natural gas capacity—so much that, for the first year since 2013, renewables won’t make up the majority of added capacity. By looking at the size and number of new power plants being built, the EIA predicts renewable additions will be at their lowest percentage since 2011.
The EIA—which provides federal energy statistics—still predicts large increases in renewable power this year: 5 gigawatts of wind capacity and 4 gigawatts of utility-scale solar. That’s enough to power more than 6 million homes. Those estimates also don’t include rooftop solar, though analysts predict Trump’s new tariffs on solar panels manufactured in China won’t help that market grow much this year.
Rogers said the FERC data from the last three months shows the renewable industry surviving—and in some cases thriving—despite Trump’s policies. “It’d be great if we had a cheerleader in chief instead of a denier in chief,” Rogers said. “But even with that, you’ve still got utility companies saying they want more renewables, and private companies entering into direct agreements for solar and wind. They’re doing this not just for PR. They want stably priced, low-cost power that fits where our electricity sector is going.”