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Renewable Energy Booms, Coal Energy Falters

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Three factors will combine to make 2015 one for the record books, according to new BNEF research and forecasts.

The U.S. could set new national records in 2015: for annual renewable build, for coal retirements, and for gas burn from the power sector.

A new white paper from Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) discusses these three factors, based on BNEF research and forecasts.

Renewable energy appears to be experiencing a temporary boom. While total renewable energy capacity and generation breaks a record every year, BNEF says the US will install more renewables than ever before in 2015. BNEF expects 18.5 new gigawatts (GW) of renewable build in 2015, which would beat the previous record of 17.1GW in 2012.

“While the 2012 record was met largely as a result of record wind build ahead of policy expirations, this year will see a nearly even mix of wind and solar,” the whitepaper states. “Next year (2016) could be a repeat of this one, as projects in wind and solar rush to meet completion dates in line with expiring tax credits.”

BNEF forecasts new solar installations to reach an all-time annual high of 9.1GW in 2015 – thanks to the completion of a handful of utility-scale solar installation “mega-projects” (aka +100MW) in California.  One of those “mega-projects” is the Mount Signal I PV two-phased project totaling 266MW in Imperial Valley, California, which came online in May 2014 and was acquired by TerraForm shortly thereafter.

Wind projects are also expected to have a good year. BNEF expects nearly 9GW – almost double the 4.9GW capacity additions that came online in 2014 – of new wind projects to be commissioned in 2015 and a similar amount in 2016.

A lot of this is thanks to the Production Tax Credit (PTC) for wind. Developers are racing to bring projects online ahead of 2017 to qualify for the PTC for wind, which gives “safe-harboured projects … until the end of 2017 to capture the important federal incentive without facing additional IRS scrutiny,” BNEF says.

For coal retirements, 2015 may be the beginning of the end. BNEF expects 23GW of coal, or about 7% of all current US coal capacity, to retire in 2015 alone, marking “the largest wave of coal retirements in US history,” according to BNEF. That represents no less than 7% of all current US coal capacity.

BNEF predicts more than 50GW are expected to retire by 2020.

“The US coal fleet is entering an unprecedented period of retirements, as the industry faces a three pronged assault from low gas prices, an aging fleet, and stringent environmental compliance,” the white paper states.

Because of environmental regulations and standards laid out by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – like the EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standard effective April 16, 2015 – will force generators to decide whether to invest in expensive environmental controls.

And, as the white paper notes, many coal units are today approaching 50+ years of operation.

Meanwhile cheap gas is effecting coal units by reducing wholesale power prices and by bringing combine-cycle gas turbines “into the base-load power mix, encroaching on sales of coal-fired electricity,” BNEF says.

2015 is shaping up to be a major year for gas generation as well.

BNEF expects the power sector will burn more natural gas in 2015 than ever before – more even than in 2012. Year-to-date, natural gas burn in 2015 is 1Bcfd above 2012 levels.

With 23GW of coal unit retirements, gas burn will rise to back-fill lost generation from retiring coal. According to the white paper, gas capacity is set to grow – with over 56GW of net gas capacity additions expected online between 2015-2020.

The “remarkably low gas prices” have also boosted burn totals by letting efficient gas turbines undercut the cost of coal-fired electricity, according to BNEF.