When Will Renewables Pass Coal? Sooner Than Anyone Thought

Wind and solar are steadily growing, while coal-fired power use is plummeting because of the coronavirus, accelerating a long-term decline.

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The 750-megawatt Conesville coal-fired power plant in eastern Ohio closed two weeks ago, one of many signals of the decline of coal power. Credit: Michael Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images
The 750-megawatt Conesville coal-fired power plant in eastern Ohio closed two weeks ago, one of many signals of the decline of coal power. Credit: Michael Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images

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A milestone in the clean energy transition may arrive earlier than expected, with renewables overtaking coal as a leading source of electricity by the end of this year, according to a forecast by the Energy Information Administration released on Tuesday.

Renewables have been steadily gaining on coal, a trend that has accelerated with the economic disruption of coronavirus.

There was little doubt that renewables would pass coal in the near future, but analysts had projected that it would take longer. This fast-forwarding of the timeline means that renewables will trail only natural gas and nuclear, showing that years of wind and solar power development have become major parts of the energy mix.

“It’s an astounding milestone, since coal was generating more than twice as much power as renewables as recently as 2016,” said Daniel Cohan, a Rice University environmental engineering professor, in an email. “Coal is facing a triple whammy this year as renewables grow, demand shrinks, and natural gas stays cheap.”

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The Energy Information Administration issued the forecast as part of its monthly Short Term Energy Outlook, which this month illustrated some of the drastic changes to electricity consumption that have happened as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

The report projects that electricity generation from coal will fall by 25 percent this year compared to 2019, bearing the brunt of the projected 5 percent decrease in overall electricity generation from all sources. Renewables are projected to increase by 11 percent compared to 2019, while natural gas would fall slightly.

Another milestone would be reached in 2021, when renewables would pass nuclear, but remain far behind natural gas.

This forecast has a higher than usual level of uncertainty because there are so many unknowns about how the coronavirus is affecting the economy, the Energy Information Administration report said.

The previous edition of the forecast, issued in April, indicated that coal would be down 20 percent this year but would come out narrowly ahead of renewables by the end of the year, and maintain its lead in 2021. Now renewables are projected to move ahead in both years.

Chart: Renewables Rising

Coal is getting especially hard hit by the drop in electricity use because coal-fired power plants cost more to operate than plants that run on natural gas or renewables. Electricity providers and grid operators are favoring less expensive options as they look at a landscape in which the supply of electricity generation far exceeds the demand.

Also, coal plants continue to close, and the ones that remain are being used less than before. Recent examples include the 750-megawatt Conesville plant in eastern Ohio, owned by American Electric Power, which opened in 1957 and closed two weeks ago.

The decline of coal has sent ripples through coal-producing regions, many of which have struggled to replace jobs in mining and at power plants.

Emissions from burning coal are a leading contributor to climate change, and reducing the use of coal is an important part of the transition to carbon-free electricity, said Michael O’Boyle, director of electricity policy at Energy Innovation, a think tank.

“The faster we can get away from coal-fired generation, the more likely it is we can get on a trajectory to net-zero emissions by 2050, which is what scientists are telling us we need to achieve,” O’Boyle said, adding that having renewables overtake coal is “definitely a positive first step.”

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