America’s renewable energy output is surpassing coal for the first time ever

wind turbine thinkstock Credit: Thinkstock

Green energy sources like solar, wind, biomass and hydroelectric surpassed coal for the first time ever in the United States last month, and experts say the trend is expected to continue through May.

The new analysis by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis is welcome news at a time when the White House is working overtime to prop up the fossil fuel industry.

Coal has typically been the second biggest energy source in the US after natural gas. But the new data show that solar, hydroelectric, biomass, wind and geothermal power surpassed coal’s energy production by 325,000-megawatt hours per day throughout the month of April.

This is the first time this has ever happened. In May, the green energy trend is expected to continue, marking a possible tipping point toward renewables in the US energy production market.

“Five years ago this never would have been close to happening,” Dennis Wamsted, one of the authors of the IEEFA report told CNN. “The transition that’s going on in the electric sector in the United States has been phenomenal.”

The news is all the more surprising amid the war the US administration has waged on the renewable sector. President Trump is wedded to the notion that climate change is a hoax, and has repeatedly promised to prop up the ailing coal industry with jobs and investment.

He has sought to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Accord and his administrators at the Environmental Protection Agency have attempted to roll back a host of federal rules meant to reduce America’s carbon dioxide output and reduce pollution.

Meanwhile, federal support for renewable energy has fallen by half. Between 2013 and 2016, US government subsidies for the renewable sector declined from $15.5 billion to $6.7 billion, according to Forbes.

But despite all that, the new data show that renewable energy has been quietly making steady gains. And that’s largely thanks to the fact that more and more Americans are taking climate change seriously – despite what their president says. In turn, this is driving more businesses, households and state-level legislatures to demand cleaner sources of energy.

“Renewables are just a better bet at the moment,” Wamstead said.

But the current gains for renewables are expected to be short lived. By June, the IEEFA report says coal will reclaim its number two position among America’s biggest energy sources.

But that, says the report’s authors, owes to the season nature of output from coal plants, which tend to undergo maintenance in the spring to prepare for summers – when America turns on its air conditioners and energy demands rise. On the other hand, says the IEEFA report, spring tends to see increased output from hydroelectric plants and wind farms.

Yet still, the IEEFA report says renewables will continue to sporadically crowd coal out of its dominant position for the next two years.

Such ups and downs are reminiscent of the emergence of natural gas, which eventually unseated coal as America’s most dominant energy source. Natural gas blipped above coal energy production for the first time in April 2015. It took another few years of such fluctuations before gas overtook coal entirely as America’s dominant energy source, in 2018.

That could bode well for renewables, said the authors of the IEEFA report.

“Coal’s proponents may dismiss these monthly and quarterly ups and downs in generation share as unimportant,” they wrote. “But we believe they are indicative of the fundamental disruption happening across the electric generation sector.”

As more than 100 US cities have committed to pursuing clean energy, and as the price of solar and wind energy fall, the future for renewable energy in America is looking brighter than its current administration would lead us to believe.

Charles Digges

charles@bellona.no