by Emily Walkenhorst
The growth of renewable energy and natural gas generation will continue through at least 2050, a federal agency has projected.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration issued its 2019 Annual Energy Outlook on Thursday, projecting that natural gas will produce 39 percent of the more than 5 trillion kilowatt hours the United States will generate in 2050. That's up from 34 percent of the roughly 4 trillion kilowatt hours the nation now produces annually.
The agency expects the United States to export a great deal of its natural gas and become a net energy exporter by 2020, aided by high demand and low, stable prices.
For renewables, the agency estimates that generation will increase from 18 percent of total power to 31 percent. The bulk of that growth will occur in solar power, which is projected to rise from about 2.3 percent of total U.S. energy to almost 15 percent by 2050.
The portion of U.S. electricity generated by coal will drop from 19 percent to 12 percent by 2050, and the portion generated by nuclear power will drop from 28 percent to 17 percent, the agency predicts.
In Arkansas, leaders have projected similar trends for years.
Companies that have invested in coal have in recent years turned toward renewable energy sources and natural gas, although Arkansas is one of a few states in which coal-fired plants have opened in the past decade. The two most recent coal-fired plants bring the state's total to five.
But Entergy Arkansas, which serves 700,000 Arkansans, reached a settlement late last year with two environmental groups opposed to coal. The settlement requires the shutdown of both of its 1980s-era coal-fired plants -- the two largest such plants in the state, with capacities of 1,659 megawatts and 1,678 megawatts.
The company has been investing in solar arrays and would ask regulators to approve more under the terms of the settlement, if approved by a judge.
The utility plans a 100-megawatt solar array in Chicot County and finished an 81-megawatt facility in Stuttgart last spring.
Entergy also has invested in natural gas in recent years, and three of its subsidiaries finished their purchase of a 1,980-megawatt natural gas-powered plant near El Dorado earlier this month. Entergy Arkansas' share of the plant is 495 megawatts, splitting it with Entergy Louisiana and Entergy New Orleans.
As for solar, Katie Niebaum, executive director of the Arkansas Advanced Energy Association, noted that Arkansas had 1.5 megawatts of solar capacity at the beginning of 2015. Now it's about 200 megawatts, she said.
"That is quite a rapid increase in solar deployment in the last few years," Niebaum said. That's because of lowered costs to make and install solar panels, she said.
Cities, businesses, farmers and schools have installed solar arrays and are increasingly looking to do so, knowing they can save money in the long run by generating their own power, she said.
The Solar Energy Industries Association reported that in the third quarter of 2018, 284 Arkansans had jobs related to the solar industry and that 36 companies were in the solar business.