By Roy L Hales
For the first time ever, in April renewable energy produced more US electricity than coal. This trend is expected to continue through May and Trump’s U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) “sees renewable generation topping coal-fired output sporadically this year, and again in 2020.” While the transition is only in the early stages, renewables are replacing coal in America.
Catching Up To Coal
“Coal’s proponents may dismiss these monthly and quarterly ups and downs in generation share as unimportant, but we believe they are indicative of the fundamental disruption happening across the electric generation sector. As natural gas achieved earlier, renewable generation is catching up to coal, and faster than forecast,” writes Dennis Wamsted of the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.
He added, “The tipping point for renewable energy actually may already have been reached in Texas, where natural gas, wind and, increasingly, solar, are steadily pushing coal out of the system. According to data from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) – the transmission operator running the system that supplies 90% of the state’s electric load – wind and solar generation topped coal’s output in the first quarter of 2019, the first time that this has happened on a quarterly basis.”
Renewables are expected to produce 18% of America’s electricity this year and 20% by 2020. The EIA predicts “wind generation will surpass hydroelectric generation to become the leading source of renewable electricity in both years.”
Cheaper To Switch
An analysis by Berkshire Hathaway utility PacifiCorp revealed that its customers could save $248 million by immediately replacing four of its poorest performing coal fired plants with less costly wind, solar and energy storage resources.
A recent report from Vibrant Clean Energy concluded that, “ … In 2018, 211 gigawatts (GW) of existing (end of 2017) U.S. coal capacity, or 74 percent of the national fleet, was at risk from local wind or solar that could provide the same amount of electricity more cheaply. By 2025, at-risk coal increases to 246 GW – nearly the entire U.S. fleet.”
Fossil Fuels Produce 89%
The story might look hopeful, if it ended there, but the real beneficiary of the fading coal market is natural gas. This may have been because of periods of extreme cold and warm weather in 2018. Natural gas is used extensively for both air conditioning and heat.
Petroleum, natural gas, and coal supplied 80% of America’s energy in 2018.
The EIA forescasts: “that U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions will decline by 1.6% in 2019 and by 1.0% in 2020. EIA expects emissions to fall in 2019 and in 2020 as forecasted temperatures return to near normal after a warm summer and cold winter in 2018, and because the share of electricity generated from natural gas and renewables is forecast to increase while the share generated from coal, which produces more CO2 emissions, is forecast to decrease. Energy-related CO2 emissions are sensitive to weather, economic growth, energy prices, and fuel mix.”
While this projected decrease is a step in the right direction, it follows on the heels of a 2.7% emissions increase in 2018. Much more will be needed for the United States to do its part in keeping the rise of global emissions to between 2.7-3.5 degrees Celsius – which is all the world actually committed to at the Paris Climate talks.
Top photo credit: California Wind Turbines At Sunset by Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress collection. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)