Amid coronavirus lockdowns, renewables eclipse coal in US power production


Publish date: May 15, 2020

Lockdowns due to the coronavirus pandemic have sent air pollution plunging, reduced traffic in cities and seems to have brought the United States a big step closer to running on renewable energy.

Lockdowns due to the coronavirus pandemic have sent air pollution plunging, reduced traffic in cities and seems to have brought the United States a big step closer to running on renewable energy.

Amid the worldwide economic slowdown that has resulted from stay-at-home orders, renewable energy has gotten a huge boost. As a consequence, the US is on track to produce more energy from solar, wind and hydroelectric than from coal for the first time on record, new government projections show. In fact, renewables have been beating coal for more than 40 days straight.

It’s a goal that seemed unthinkable a decade ago, when coal was so dominant that it provided half the nation’s electricity. And it comes despite the Trump administration’s three-year push to revive the ailing industry by weakening pollution regulations on coal-burning plants.

According to the report from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), using data from the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), April’s boost not only comes from low gas prices, warmer weather and more renewables added to the grid, but also from a massive dip in electricity demand as Americans stay home.

IEEFA said the findings mark an important “milestone” in the country’s transition to clean energy.

It’s the first time renewables have overtaken coal in electricity generation every day in a single month. The report measured the time between March 25 and May 3, but the trend is expected to continue.

The longest continuous stretch previously was April 2019, which saw nine consecutive days of renewables overtaking coal. In total, renewables beat coal on just 38 days last year.

The high cost of coal typically means it is the first fuel cut by utility companies when energy demand is down. Renewables are cheaper to operate and are often backed by clean-energy regulations. In April, coal-fired generation held just 15.3 percent of the market share, a massive decrease.

According to IEEFA, January marked the first time in decades – and possible in the entire history of the U.S. power industry – that coal’s market share fell below 20 percent. In 2008, it held over half of the market.

“The outbreak has put all the pressures facing the coal industry on steroids,” Jim Thompson, a coal analyst at IHS Markit, told the New York Times.

Coal is the dirtiest of all fossil fuels, and its decline has already helped drive down United States carbon dioxide emissions 15 percent since 2005.

This year, the EIA expects America’s emissions to fall by another 11 percent, the largest drop in at least 70 years. While the pandemic has made these projections uncertain, the decline is expected to come partly because Americans aren’t driving as much, but mainly because coal plants are running less often.

Even if coal does manage to beat expectations and rebound later this year, experts say that the dramatic shift in the nation’s electricity system is unlikely to be just a blip.

The latest report from the EIA estimates that America’s total coal consumption will fall by nearly one-quarter this year, and coal plants are expected to provide just 19 percent of the nation’s electricity, dropping for the first time below both nuclear power and renewable power, a category that includes wind, solar, hydroelectric dams, geothermal and biomass.

Natural gas plants, which supply 38 percent of the nation’s power, are expected to hold their output steady thanks to low fuel prices.

IEEFA predicted renewable energy in the US could exceed coal annually in 2021, but is now hopeful the pandemic could accelerate the change, despite the Trump administration’s efforts to revive the coal industry.

Trump has repeatedly voices his suspicion of renewable energy, particularly wind, saying the wind “only blows sometimes.”

“I never understood wind,” he said in a speech last December.   “You know, I know windmills very much. They’re noisy. They kill the birds. You want to see a bird graveyard? Go under a windmill someday. You’ll see more birds than you’ve ever seen in your life.”