Another tipping point in energy seems to be on the horizon, as renewable energy in the US is expected to surpass coal in electricity generation for the first time this month.
Renewables (including hydro, solar, wind, biomass, and geothermal) are projected to generate more electricity than coal-fired plants in April, according to the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEFFA). This would be a first.
The IEEFA also notes that new data from the US Energy Information Administration projects renewables to surpass coal in May. Estimates show renewables generating 2,322 and 2,271 thousand megawatt-hours per day in April and May. Coal is expected to reach 1,997 and 2,239 thousand MWh/day during those same two months.
A closer look at the EIA’s short-term outlook shows renewables and coal may trade places month to month over the next few years (spring and fall are peak times for renewable generation, as coal plants often go offline for maintenance in preparation for summer and winter).
Coal actually reached a five-year high in 2018, but more than 7 gigawatts of coal-fired generation will be retired by the end of 2020, as renewables continue to increase:
EIA forecasts that all renewable fuels, including wind, solar, and hydroelectric generation, will produce 18% of U.S. electricity in 2019, and almost 20% in 2020. EIA expects that wind generation will surpass hydroelectric generation to become the leading source of renewable electricity in both years.
Energy-related CO2 emissions are also expected to fall in 2019 and 2020 after an increase last year. Part of this is due to an expected return to “near normal” temperatures over the next few years. But the other major factor is the increasing share in renewables and natural gas, compared to coal.
Renewables are now competing with coal in the same way natural gas was a few years ago. The IEEFA points out natural gas surpassed coal for the last time in January 2018, and “has held the uncontested top spot in electricity generation ever since.”
While the first chart in this article shows renewables and coal continuing to dance with each other over the next few years, so to speak, renewables are mostly on top. The IEEFA notes “renewable generation is catching up to coal, and faster than forecast.” An extended view would surely show renewables taking over for good at some point. This doesn’t seem to be a controversial statement — renewables are increasing every year while coal plants are being retired.
So while coal fades away, the next frontier will see renewables taking on natural gas, and perhaps even nuclear, which has re-entered the discussion in some circles recently as a way to provide more energy while cutting back emissions. (See this USA Today article today about some Democratic presidential candidates showing “openness” to expanding nuclear power.)
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