The Green Revolution: Electricity generation from coal dips below renewables for first time in US history

Coal, which has long been the go-to fuel source in the power sector, had already been demoted to second place by natural gas, and now wind and solar power are quickly catching up


                            The Green Revolution: Electricity generation from coal dips below renewables for first time in US history

The clean energy revolution in the US is on the brink of overthrowing coal as the primary source of energy.

According to a recent report that was published by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), the renewable energy sector in the country is projected to produce more electricity than the tradition coal in the month of April. This is something that has never happened before.

Coal, which has long been the go-to fuel source in the power sector, has already been demoted to second place by natural gas, which is a cleaner burning fossil fuel.

Wind and solar power are now putting the pressure on coal.

Research analyst at IEEFA, Dennis Wamstead, said in an interview: "Five years ago this never would have been close to happening. The transition that's going on in the electric sector in the United States has been phenomenal."

Emissions spew from a large stack at the coal-fired Brandon Shores Power Plant, on March 9, 2018, in Baltimore, Maryland (Source: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

When it comes to the renewable energy market in the US, it did not have any presence even as little as 10 years ago aside from hydro-power.

A surge in investment, which came for the wind energy sector first and then solar, has made these new technologies much cheaper than the traditional coal.

Around the same time, a lot of awareness about climate change has led to many businesses, homes, and state legislatures in the country to demand cleaner energy from the government.

Wamstead said in the interview: "Renewables are just a better bet at the moment."

The IEEFA cited US government statistics in the report that has projected renewable energy, which includes hydro, biomass, wind, solar and geothermal, will be able to occasionally surpass coal this year and in 2020. This means that the renewables this year will most probably start generating more energy than the 240 gigawatts generated by coal. 

Water from the Niagara River passes through a hydroelectric dam the Robert Moses Generating Facility at Lewiston, New York (Source: John Moore/Getty Images)

The US Energy Information Administration says that even though a major milestone such as this one will highlight the shift away from the traditional source of coal, some of it could also be due to seasonal issues. For example, some coal plants in the country generally shut down for maintenance during the spring when the demand for electricity is generally low. The spring is also a good season for hydro and wind power.

It will still take several years for renewable power to surpass coal on an annual basis. Natural gas was able to get ahead of coal as the country's number one power source only in 2016 but the clean energy transition is speeding up.  

Driven by falling costs, global spending on renewable energy sources like wind and solar is now outpacing investment in electricity from fossil fuels and nuclear power (Source: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

According to Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) numbers that were published early in the year, renewable energy was projected to be the fastest-growing source of power generation for the next couple of years at least. Coal's popularity, on the other hand, is rapidly declining. Wamstead said: "A lot of plants are staring normal retirement age right in the face."

The winner for renewable energy may have already reached the state of Texas, where natural gas, wind, and solar energy are slowly pushing out coal from the system. According to data from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the transmission operator which supplied 90% of the state's electric load, wind and solar have topped the output of coal in the first quarter of 2019 already.

ERCOT's coal-fired generators produced less electricity during the first quarter of the year than the 2018 period in spite of more demand compared to last year. The interesting shift to renewable energy in the state will not end overnight as the coal plants in Texas are used generously in the summer months. The gap, however, is closing fast.