Solar and wind power surpass coal in the US

It’s a first for the two renewables combined without adding hydropower.

For the first time, solar and wind have generated more U.S. power than coal as measured during the first five months of 2023, reports Benjamin Storrow of Climatewire: “Federal data shows renewable energy generation exceeded coal-fired power in 2020 and 2022, but only when hydropower was counted as a source of renewable energy, according to figures compiled by the Energy Information Administration.”

Storrow reports, “The milestone illustrates the ongoing transformation of the U.S. power sector as the nation races to install cleaner forms of energy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels. Power markets have witnessed a precipitous drop in coal-fired generation this year, driven by low natural gas prices, a mild winter and a wave of coal plant retirements.”

Andy Blumenfeld, an analyst who tracks the coal industry, told Storrow, “From a coal perspective, it has been a disaster. The decline is happening faster than anyone anticipated.”

Coal has been in decline since 2008 “as a wave of older coal facilities retired and was replaced by a combination of natural gas and renewables,” Storrow explains. “Yet even by that standard, coal’s sudden drop in 2023 has been remarkable.” In 2022, the war in Ukraine caused a temporary increase in coal prices, but now, “coal plants will have difficulty competing against gas in that market, analysts said. But structural factors have also contributed to the fall in coal output. … The U.S. has retired around 14 gigawatts of coal capacity, or roughly 7 percent of the coal fleet, since the start of 2022. … EIA figures show that coal was down 27 percent compared with the same time last year and below levels recorded in 2020.”

The quick switch to renewables has some experts worried about the reliability “of the country’s web of power grids,” Storrow reports. “In recent testimony to Senate lawmakers, North American Electric Reliability Corp. CEO Jim Robb said, “The pace of change is overtaking the reliability needs of the system.’ … Others said those worries could be eased by unclogging a bottleneck that’s preventing clean energy projects from connecting to the grid.”

Still, the switch “is a boost to U.S. climate efforts. Coal accounted for 55 percent of power sector emissions in 2022, according to Environmental Protection Agency data, despite representing just 20 percent of total power generation. … Carbon Monitor, an emissions tracker run by academics, estimates U.S. emissions were down 5.6 percent through April compared with the same time in 2022. Power sector emissions were down by nearly 1 percent.”

Written by Heather Close. Cross-posted from the Rural Blog.