EIA forecasts falling electric capacity additions in coming decades

Additions to U.S. electricity generation capacity are expected to drop dramatically in the coming decades, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s Annual Energy Outlook 2015 report.

In the EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook 2015 Reference case, which reflects current laws and policies but does not include the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed Clean Power Plan, total generating capacity (including end-use generators like rooftop solar panels) increases from 1,065 GW in 2013 to 1,261 GW in 2040. The amount of capacity added is more than three times the amount that is expected to retire, with 287 GW added and 90 GW retired.

According to the EIA, capacity additions through 2017, much of which are under construction, average about 17 GW per year and about half are non-hydro renewable plants (mainly wind and solar) that were prompted by federal tax incentives and renewable portfolio standards. From 2018 to 2024, the EIA forecasts capacity additions averaging less than 4 GW per year, pointing out that earlier planned additions are sufficient to meet most growth in electricity demand. From 2025 to 2040, the EIA says average annual capacity additions — primarily natural gas-fired and renewable technologies — will average 12 GW per year. By comparison, annual additions from 2000 to 2013 averaged 26 GW per year.

Natural gas-fired plants account for 58% of the capacity additions through 2040, while renewables provide 38% of the additions, with nuclear making up 3%.

The EIA points out that natural gas-fired combined-cycle plants are relatively inexpensive to build in comparison with new coal, nuclear, or renewable technologies, and are generally more efficient to operate than existing steam plants that may be powered by fossil fuels.

Renewable additions are aided in the near term by federal tax credits, and in the longer term by rising natural gas prices and state renewable targets. The 109 GW of renewable capacity additions in the Reference case are primarily wind (49 GW) and solar (48 GW) technologies, including 31 GW of solar photovoltaic installations from rooftop and other distributed generation installations.

Nuclear additions total 9 GW, including 6 GW of plants currently under construction and 3 GW projected to come online after 2029. The EIA says new coal plants will total just 1 GW, as high construction costs and uncertainty about future limits on greenhouse gas emissions will reduce their competiveness.

The analysis in the Annual Energy Outlook 2015 report includes several cases that examine different assumptions of macroeconomic growth, world oil prices and higher oil and natural gas resource availability, which yield a range of projected capacity additions. The EIA adds that policies such as the proposed Clean Power Plan, or the continuation of tax credits for certain renewable energy technologies set to expire under current law can also have a significant effect on projected capacity additions and retirements.