The Energy Information Administration reported last week that, for the first time ever, the United States generated more electricity from renewable sources in 2020 than from coal.
The report made official what I reported in February based on preliminary data.
I’ve spent the week looking beyond the national numbers to focus on how the energy transition is playing out in the states, with help from ICN graphic artist Paul Horn.
Texas stands out as the country’s renewable energy leader, when measured by gigawatt-hours of electricity generated.The runner-up is California, which leads in solar power but has little wind power.
And while few would be surprised that Texas and California rank as the top two, after that are some wind energy powerhouses that may not get their due.
Iowa beats everybody except Texas and California. Oklahoma is right behind.
I reached out to Tyler Norris, senior director of development for Cypress Creek Renewables, one of the country’s largest solar developers, to get an idea of what he notices in the figures for the states. He has been crunching the numbers and posting charts online, which helped inspire me to do a similar analysis.
“We’re in the midst of a historic energy transition, and it’s challenging to keep track of power sector trends across 50 different states, which makes it extremely valuable to have the latest, state-level data organized and presented in a way that’s easily digestible,” Norris said. “EIA holds a treasure trove of data, but it’s not always presented in a way that enables analysts and decision-makers to decipher the implications.”
He said the success of renewable energy in Republican-leaning states like Kansas, North Carolina and Oklahoma “is a deeply hopeful precedent” for building a political consensus for supporting renewable energy.
Nationwide, renewable energy sources (including wind, solar, hydroelectric, biomass and geothermal) generated 834,236 gigawatt-hours last year, enough to pass coal and nuclear, which generated 773,805 and 789,919 gigawatt-hours, respectively.
Renewables were second only to natural gas, which, with 1.6 million gigawatt-hours, was way out in front. In percentage terms, natural gas was used to generate 40 percent of the country’s electricity, followed by renewables at 21 percent; nuclear at 20 percent; coal at 19 percent; and “other,” at less than 1 percent.
But 2020 was far from an ordinary year. The coronavirus led to a decrease in economic activity, which meant a reduction in electricity demand. Since coal-fired power plants cost more to operate than other leading sources, many plant operators responded to the drop in demand by running their coal plants less than before.
I mention this to help explain why coal is having a bit of a comeback in 2021. The Energy Information Administration and others are projecting coal generation will increase enough to pass renewables for the year, even though renewables also are growing.
This may be a “dead cat bounce,” to use investor lingo, a brief recovery from a long-term decline that precedes a continuation of the decline. If renewables fall behind coal in 2022, the two are likely to switch places again soon after, probably in 2023.
After that, every forecast I’ve seen shows coal continuing to shrink while renewables accelerate in their growth.
The national trends provide some context for what’s happened in the states with electricity generation from coal plants, shown here for 2015 and 2020:
There is a clear gap between the states that are quickly moving away from coal and those whose shift has been more gradual. Part of the reason for the difference is that states have different systems for regulating power plants, with some states forcing plants to compete on an open market.
Some of the states with the greatest decreases in coal power—including Texas, Pennsylvania and Illinois—have laws that require most power plants to compete. If coal plants cost much more to operate than gas plants, owners respond quickly or risk severe financial losses.
In many more states, however, power plants are insulated from market forces by regulations that give utilities monopolies on electricity generation and an ability to pass costs along to consumers, even if those costs are out of step with the market.
This helps to explain why North Dakota, Missouri, West Virginia and Wyoming have had only small decreases in their electricity generation from coal. And, three of those states—North Dakota, West Virginia and Wyoming—are leaders in coal mining, which tends to increase political pressure to maintain the use of coal-fired power plants. (I’ve written about the fight taking place over whether to sell, or close, Coal Creek Station, the largest power plant in North Dakota.)
Nebraska is another state that has been slow to move away from coal, but that state is in a category all its own for regulation, with no investor-owned utilities. Instead, Nebraska utilities are run by local governments or rural electric cooperatives, with almost no state regulation of rates.
But let’s not focus too much on any one type of electricity generation. After a week of examining these numbers at the state level, I can see that each state has its own story, with an interplay of many electricity sources. There were some broad trends in 2020, with coal down and renewables up almost everywhere, but many other factors were at play, including weather and maintenance issues.
Here is a look at that bigger picture, showing the changes from 2015 to 2020 for six leading electricity sources:
Find your state and run your eyes across the numbers to see what’s happened there during a period of great change in how we produce electricity.
Other stories about the energy transition to take note of this week.
Biden Clean Car Rules Expected: The Biden Administration is announcing new emissions rules for cars on Thursday, returning to an approach favored by President Barack Obama and then rolled back by President Donald Trump. The White House event will feature several major automakers and represent an important part of Biden’s goal of cutting U.S. emissions in half by 2030, as Maxine Joselow and Arianna Skibell report for E&E News. Biden’s proposal will call for even deeper emissions cuts from vehicles than Obama’s did, according to Tom Krisher and Hope Yen of the Associated Press.
A Closer Look at an Ohio Solar Proposal: A developer is proposing a 250-megawatt solar farm near Columbus, Ohio, on land owned by the family of a prominent philanthropist. The project would serve rising demand for renewable energy in central Ohio. But it also is facing opposition from neighbors, including the operators of a park who are concerned that acres of solar panels will harm the character of the area, as Mark Williams reports for The Columbus Dispatch. This story has many of the elements that are playing out in wind and solar developments across the country.
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Building Codes Become a Climate Battleground: Environmental advocates and government officials are increasingly looking to building codes as a way to require developers and property owners to reduce emissions from housing and businesses. The climate-focused push to change building codes is playing out most prominently in California, including some bans on natural gas in new construction, as Emma Foehringer Merchant reports for ICN. “You all have this opportunity on your lap to set a new precedent for the end of fossil fuels in our built environment,” said Sasan Saadat, a policy analyst at Earthjustice, speaking at a meeting of the California Energy Commission.
Infrastructure Bill Includes Improvement to Federal Energy Forecasting: I’ve written before about how the Energy Information Administration, despite all the things it does really well, is often lousy at long-term forecasting. The office is constrained by federal rules that limit what factors analysts can consider in making forecasts, which often leads to results that are out of step with what energy researchers expect to happen. Help may be on the way, as Carnegie Mellon University’s Costa Samaras noted on Twitter, because the massive infrastructure bill in the U.S. Senate includes a provision that requires the office to expand the factors it can consider in its forecasts. The proposed new modeling system would also be open access, which would be an important step toward allowing anyone to scrutinize what goes into the forecasts.
Inside Clean Energy is ICN’s weekly bulletin of news and analysis about the energy transition. Send news tips and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.