US hydro losing edge to wind, solar

With 6.8GW of generating capacity, the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington state is the largest hydro plant in the US.

With 6.8GW of generating capacity, the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington state is the largest hydro plant in the US.

The US hydro power sector’s long-standing claim to generate more electricity than all other renewable sources combined has been toppled, thanks to recent surges in wind and PV capacity.

The US hydro sector remains among the largest in the world, with about 100GW of installed capacity. But its grip on the US renewables industry is waning fast.

As recently as its 2012 annual report, the National Hydropower Association claimed that conventional hydro accounted for two-thirds of the country’s renewables generation. By its 2013 annual report, the claim had been watered down to “a majority” of US renewables generation.

But during the first quarter of 2014, hydro generated 63TWh of power – down 4.5% year-on-year – while production from other renewables grew 11.3% to 72 TWh, according to new figures from the Energy Information Administration.

It is a landmark achievement for wind and solar within the US energy mix, and one unlikely to be reversed, with much of the hydro sector’s future growth prospects tied to pumped storage and emerging marine renewables technologies like wave and tidal-stream.

Within the “other renewables” category, wind accounted for 50TWh of production – up 11% – while solar accounted for 3TWh, representing annual growth of 104%. Biomass made up most of the rest.

The growth in wind power came despite 2013 having been a poor year for US wind installations, with just over 1GW added to the country's installed base.

With 4.7GW of new installations, solar – combining PV and CSP – represented the second largest source of new power generation capacity in the US last year, trailing only natural gas.Coal, 437 million MWh, up 11.6%.

During the quarter, coal was the largest source of US power generation (at 437GWh), followed by natural gas (243MWh) and nuclear (198MWh).

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