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U.S. Wind Power Just Crossed an Important Milestone

Onshore wind power is likely to provide at least 10% of the nation's electricity in 2022. Renewable energy hasn't hit that mark since the 1980s.

Inflation isn't the only thing reaching highs last seen in the 1980s.

The last time a renewable energy resource claimed at least 10% of the nation's power mix was when hydropower accomplished the feat in the late 1980s. That's about to become a reality again in 2022, except this time it will be onshore wind power instead of hydroelectric dams.

According to data compiled by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the United States leaned on onshore wind farms for 10% of its total electricity generation through August 2022 when small-scale solar is included. That all but guarantees wind power will provide at least 10% of the nation's power mix for the full year.

This projection is supported by expectations for 6,000 megawatts of capacity additions in the second half of the year and the dual peak of onshore wind power that occurs near April and October each year. Both should help to pad the stats of the renewable energy resource for 2022.

What does this milestone mean for the energy transition -- and what's ahead for renewable energy sources?

A Long Time Coming, With Much More to Come

The ascension of renewable energy within the power sector, informally referred to as electricity markets, has occurred at a historic pace. When coal-fired power plants peaked in 2007 at 48.6% of the power mix, onshore wind provided just 0.8% of the nation's electricity. Utility-scale and small-scale solar barely registered, contributing a combined 0.015%.

In the first eight months of 2022, wind and solar combined for 14.9% of the country's electricity production. Through the same period of 2021, wind and solar combined for "only" 12.3% of the nation's power mix. The year-over-year comparison is impressive, but a rise of that magnitude in a 15-year period has only occurred a handful of times throughout history.

That's primarily due to economic forces, which have resulted in onshore wind and utility-scale solar accounting for 63% of capacity additions in the first half of 2022. The industry's pipeline is even more biased toward modern renewables in the next few years.

  • Onshore wind had an estimated 137,500 megawatts of installed capacity at the end of August 2022. However, the resource only operates at 35% capacity on a national basis across a calendar year due to intermittency. That still powers at least 10% of the country's electricity needs, ranking behind only natural gas (38.5%), coal (19.8%), and nuclear (17.6%).
  • The United States was expected to add 11,200 megawatts of onshore wind capacity in 2022 as of August. However, timelines and estimates for project completion have shifted due to the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act. The new legislation extends tax credits for onshore wind and reimagines tax credits for utility-scale solar. That could help the nation average at least 10,000 megawatts of onshore wind power additions per year for the next several years.
  • Utility-scale solar is expected to add 17,800 megawatts of capacity in 2022 and well over 20,000 megawatts in 2023. The Inflation Reduction Act and economics could help the United States average over 20,000 megawatts of capacity additions for the foreseeable future, although the resource operates at only 25% of capacity on a national basis across a calendar year due to intermittency.

If investors account for capacity additions, then the future is bright for modern renewables -- even when accounting for low utilization rates due to the intermittency of wind and solar power generation.

Onshore wind, offshore wind, utility-scale solar, and small-scale solar could generate between 34% and 40% of total American electricity by 2030. That could result in zero-carbon power sources – including nuclear, hydropower, and other sources – providing between 57% and 63% of the nation's total power mix.

Although the pace of decarbonization progress never quite seems like enough, there are plenty of reasons for optimism. Whereas the 2020s will be characterized by the buildout of onshore wind and solar, the 2030s are likely to be characterized by offshore wind power and next-generation nuclear. By the time 2040 rolls around, the last coal-fired power plant could be a distant memory and the biggest problem facing electric utilities might be figuring out what to do with "aging" natural gas-fired power plants.