America’s Renewable Energy Surpasses Coal for the First Time Ever

By Vicky Harris, Vice President Marketing on July 09, 2019
Vicky Harris
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Earlier this year, America’s renewable energy mix finally reached the long-awaited tipping point. In April the generation of electricity from sustainable sources surpassed coal for the first time. Bloomberg reported, “Hydroelectric dams, solar panels and wind turbines generated almost 68.5 million megawatt hours of power in April, eclipsing the 60 million that coal produced that month.” They further stressed, “That’s the most clean power the U.S. has ever made―and the least coal it has burned for power in years.”

Although the competition will remain close for a while, this important inflection point was reached. It is now only a matter of time when the generation of power from renewables consistently surpasses that of coal, month-to-month, leaving it behind forever.

This is transformative news. Coal is a carbon-intensive fuel that has warmed our planet. The emissions that resulted from burning coal have also harmed the health of billions of people who live near power plants, which are usually located close to the cities they serve. This important milestone means the air that more than half of the world’s population breaths (those living in cities) will become cleaner as the green energy wave reaches all corners of the world. While coal-producing communities will need smart help as they struggle to adapt to this new reality, this shift in energy production will benefit everybody in the long-run.

The energy trends point to a brighter future for everyone.

April 2019 Marks the Beginning

Grist reported that America’s renewable energy outpaced coal for the first month ever: “Coal is typically our second largest source of energy after natural gas. That changed this spring: Renewable energy, like hydro, solar, wind, and geothermal, is projected to exceed coal-powered energy by 325,000 megawatt-hours per day in April, and by 32,000 megawatt-hours per day in May, according to a new report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.”

Over the past year, the last reason to keep coal going―the economic argument for it―completely eroded. From this point on, the economic disadvantage of coal versus renewables will only widen, as evidenced by current energy production prices and capacity building cost trends. (See our blog article on this topic here).

Because of the enormous amount invested in fixed assets devoted to coal production built over the past century, the transition to renewables will not occur overnight. However, it is happening much faster than expected. After the cost of generating power from solar and wind became consistently cheaper than that of coal, we reached the first month ever of higher energy production from renewables in the U.S. within about a year’s time. Although it is too soon to predict just how fast coal’s remaining 37% share of the world’s electricity production will fall to single digits, it is now safe to say that it is no longer a matter of “if,” but “when.”

U.S. Power Sector Ever More Efficient

Bloomberg analyzed U.S. renewables overtaking coal from a slightly different angle, explaining, “Consumers experienced near record low energy costs on a household basis and the number of energy jobs grew. Meanwhile, greater corporate purchasing of renewables, state policies, and plunging prices for energy storage continued to reshape the nation’s energy portfolio.”

They also quoted the president of the Business Council for Sustainable Energy (BCSE) as saying, “Continued expansion of sustainable energy is not just beneficial to the environment, it is an engine of American economic growth.” The challenge we now face, however, is to ensure that this engine for sustainable growth benefits everybody in America and not just those in places where renewables can be used. The Motley Fool pointed to this uneven distribution of renewables in a recent article:

“Thirty-eight percent of America’s solar power capacity is installed in California. One-quarter of the country’s wind power capacity is spinning in Texas, while 66% is contained within the 11 states in the American Wind Corridor, which runs roughly down the center of the Lower 48. There’s a 360,000-square-mile swath of the Southeast, spanning seven whole states, that isn’t home to a single wind turbine. And the Eastern Seaboard is furiously building natural-gas pipelines and power plants―even converting coal-fired power plants to run on gas.”  

To ensure we all benefit from this economic growth bandwagon, we need to invest in ever more efficient solar and wind generation and emerging technologies, such as long-range power transmission, renewable storage, and of course, hydrogen.

Hundreds of Communities Need Help

This uneven distribution of renewables is felt even more acutely by those communities that have depended on coal for many decades. Unfortunately, the “engine of American economic growth” (as the Business Council for Sustainable Energy called the effect of renewables in the energy sector) does not benefit everybody at the same pace. We need to face the new energy reality and to provide a future for those employed in the coal industry to ensure that progress does not leave anybody behind.

No future economic progress, and not even the clear immediate health benefits for those who are losing coal jobs, will put bread on their tables or pay their mortgages. It is time to get serious about the inevitable displacement of coal and create a solid path to progress for those who earned their living from that industry. True progress needs to be inclusive.

A Coal-Free America?

From where we stand today, transitioning to a fully renewable electric power sector may look like an unattainable goal. But then again, the idea of renewables surpassing coal looked the same way just a few years ago. Simple economics will serve to get us there. Other countries are realizing this unstoppable trend and accelerating it. Last month, the BBC reported that the United Kingdom plans to cut its greenhouse gases “to almost zero by 2050 under a new government plan to tackle climate change,” becoming “the first major nation to propose this target.”

We believe America will follow suit. After all, it’s not only good for our planet and the health of our citizens, it just makes plain economic sense.


Photo courtesy of Christopher Michel.
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