Solar power has been growing like crazy. Last year the solar industry installed a record amount of solar capacity. The impact can be seen in the data. According to the Energy Information Administration, in 2012 there were 3.5 million megawatthours of electricity generated by solar photovoltaic panels. In 2013 that more than doubled to 8.3 million Mwh. And to think that a decade ago the U.S. generated just 6,000 Mwh from solar PV. Solar is closing in on price parity with the likes of coal — with full-cycle, unsubsidized costs of about 13 cents per kilowatthour, versus 12 cents for advanced coal plants.
So is the solar revolution finally here? Not quite. Even after a decade of rampant growth solar energy still barely moves the needle in the U.S. energy mix. In fact, solar merely equals the amount of electricity that the nation generates by burning natural gas captured from landfills. And it's only slightly more meaningful than the 7.3 million Mwh we get from burning human waste strained out of municipal sewer systems.
Indeed, when you factor in all the sources of energy consumed in this country, captured solar power amounts to well less than 1 quadrillion Btu out of an annual total of 96.5 quadrillion.
The biggest sources are the old standbys. Oil still reigns supreme at 36 quadrillion Btu, natural gas at 26 quads, nuclear 8. Hydropower and biomass bring up the rear at 2.6 and 2.7 quads. Wind is just 1.5 quads. And coal — the great carbon-belching demon of the global energy mix — its contribution is 19 quads. That's nearly 8 times all the nation's wind and solar generation combined.
This is all important to keep in mind in light of pending efforts by the EPA to initiate draconian new regulations governing carbon dioxide emissions from coal-burning power plants. Coal is responsible for about 1.7 billion metric tons a year of carbon dioxide out of the 5.3 billion ton annual total.
The assumption, by policy makers like President Obama, is that the country can cut carbon emissions by closing coal plants, while making up for the lost electricity by burning more natural gas and building more solar and wind. Indeed, natural gas has taken a bite out of coal. In 2013, coal production from U.S. mines fell to 995.8 million short tons. The last time it was that low was in the late 1980s. Coal production peaked in 2008 at 1.17 billion short tons.