Synapse Electricity Snapshot 2017

Today’s electric system looks remarkably different than it looked 10—or even five—years ago. Coal generation is retiring at an unprecedented rate and being replaced by natural gas and renewables. The United States’ wind, solar, and geothermal electric generating capacity now exceeds capacities from hydroelectric and nuclear resources. Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are at their lowest levels since the early 1990s, and both total generation and electric sales have remained essentially unchanged for 10 years. The “Synapse Electricity Snapshot 2017” (available here) highlights several major trends in 2016 electric sector capacity, generation, and CO2 emissions. Key findings include the following:

  • Renewable capacity now exceeds 100 gigawatts (GW) and exceeds both hydro and nuclear capacity. Renewables are now the third-largest resource on a capacity basis, behind natural gas and coal. Together, non-CO2-emitting generating capacity makes up 27 percent of the nationwide total and accounts for one-third of all generation.
  • Retirement of old and uneconomic coal plants has led to the lowest level of coal capacity since 1983.
  • Natural gas generation surpassed coal generation for the 10 out of the 12 months of 2016 and exceeded annual coal generation for the first time in U.S. history.
  • Since 2007, annual growth in electric retail sales has averaged -0.1 percent per year.
  • Since hitting an all-time peak in 2007, electric sector CO2 emissions have declined to 1,808 million metric tons in 2015, their lowest level since 1992.
  • Since 1990, the total economic value produced for every metric ton of CO2 emitted has increased by 85 percent from $5,500 to $10,300.

The animation in Figure 1 demonstrates how the resource mix of energy generated in each state has transformed between 1990 and 2016. Over time, the share of generation from coal has shrunk compared to that of natural gas and renewables (see Table 1). In 2016, 17 states produced 10 percent or less of their generation from coal (compared to nine states 10 years ago in 2007 and 16 states in 2015). In 2016, 17 states produced 10 percent or more generation from renewables (compared to zero states in 2007 and 13 states in 2015).

Figure 1. Annual net generation composition by fuel type and state, 1990-2016

1990 to 2016 Generation Animation

Note: In this figure, "Renewables" includes wind, solar, geothermal, and storage while "Oil and Other" includes oil, biomass, petcoke, solid waste, landfill gas, tires, purchases, and other miscellaneous fuel types. This figure only shows generation from utility-scale resources and does not include distributed generation (e.g., rooftop solar).

Sources: EIA Forms 923, 906, 920, 759, and 867, 1990-2016

Table 1. Number of states with low levels of coal or high levels of renewables




Number of states producing 10 percent or less generation from coal




Number of states producing 10 percent or more generation from renewables




Read the Synapse Electricity Snapshot 2017