Home » Renewable Energy » Renewable Power Overtakes Coal in the US for the First Time: A Landmark Shift in Power Generation
For the first time ever, renewable energy sources have overtaken coal as a source of power generation in the United States. This marks a significant milestone in the country’s transition towards cleaner energy production, as coal has historically been the dominant source of electricity in the US. According to data from the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), renewable sources such as wind, solar, hydro, and geothermal energy accounted for 20% of US electricity generation in April 2020, while coal accounted for 15%. This is a landmark shift in power generation, as coal has long been the go-to source of electricity for many US utilities due to its low cost and reliable supply.
The shift towards renewables is being driven by a combination of factors, including declining costs, government incentives, and growing public demand for cleaner energy. This trend is expected to continue in the coming years, as more and more utilities make the switch to renewable sources of power generation.
Renewable energy is defined as energy produced from natural sources that are replenished at a faster rate than it is consumed. Sunshine and wind are two examples of such constantly replenishing sources. Renewable energy sources abound and are all around us.
Coal, oil, and gas are non-renewable resources formed over hundreds of millions of years. When fossil fuels are used to generate energy, they emit dangerous greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. Renewable energy produces much fewer emissions than burning fossil fuels. Transitioning away from fossil fuels, which now account for most emissions, and towards renewable energy is critical for addressing the climate catastrophe.
How did Renewable Power overtake coal in the US for the first time?
Historically, wood was the primary energy source in the United States until the mid-1800s. It was the country’s only commercial-scale renewable energy source until the first hydropower plants began producing electricity in the 1880s. Coal was used as fuel for steam-powered boats and trains and to make steel in the early 1800s, and it was later employed to generate electricity in the 1880s. The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) began estimating energy in 1635.
EIA converts energy sources to standard heat units known as British thermal units (Btu) to compare different types of energy reported in separate physical units (barrels, cubic feet, tons, kilowatt hours, etc.). Using a fossil fuel equivalent, the EIA calculates wind, hydro, solar, and geothermal electricity consumption.
Fall of Coal Usage
According to the US Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) Monthly Energy Review, renewable energy consumption in the United States surpassed coal usage for the first time since before 1885 in 2019. This result indicates the steady drop in coal use for power generation over the last decade and a rise in renewable energy, primarily wind and solar. Compared to 2018, coal use in the United States fell by approximately 15%, while total renewable energy consumption increased by 1%.
The shift away from King Coal is attributable to seasonal variables and a long-term drop in coal plants in the United States. In the United States, late spring and early fall often experience the lowest electricity use due to lower demand for heating and cooling. Meanwhile, hydroelectric power, the most important renewable energy source, peaks in the spring when melting snowpack increases water availability at downstream facilities.
Rise of Renewable Energy
To reach climate change targets, the government has pushed the transition to green energy through subsidies for renewable generation and punitive actions against coal facilities. According to the Department of Energy and Climate Change, the high share of renewable generation represented increased renewable capacity, such as the development of significant new offshore wind farms and “more favourable meteorological conditions for renewable generation.” Wind speeds increased by 1.4 knots, resulting in increased turbine output, while rainy weather in May and June increased hydroelectric power generation.
Biomass energy, also classified as renewable, rose due to converting a portion of Drax, Britain’s largest coal-fired power plant, to burn wood instead of coal. The decline in coal power reflected the closure or temporary shutdown of other coal power plants and an increase in the UK’s carbon price, making coal plants less profitable to operate. Over the period, gas was the most important power source in the UK, accounting for 30.2 per cent of total energy generation, while nuclear accounted for 21.5 per cent.
Renewable Energy Consumption in the US
In 2019, the United States coal consumption fell for the sixth year. Coal-fired electricity generation has fallen dramatically over the last decade, reaching its lowest level in 42 years in 2019. Natural gas usage in the electric power industry has expanded significantly in recent years, displacing much of the energy generation from decommissioned coal facilities.
Overall renewable energy consumption in the United States advanced for the fourth year in 2019, reaching a record high of 11.5 quadrillions Btu. Since 2015, the growth in renewable energy in the United States has been nearly wholly attributed to the usage of wind and solar in the electric power sector.
Although coal was once widely employed in the industrial, transportation, residential, and commercial sectors, it is now mainly used to generate power in the United States. Around 90% of coal usage in the United States is in the electric power sector, with the remainder almost entirely in the industrial sector.
All sectors in the United States are increasingly utilizing renewable energy. Approximately 56% of commercially provided renewable energy in the United States is used in the electric power sector, primarily from wind and hydroelectric power. However, other forms are in the industrial (22%), transportation (12%), residential (7%), and commercial (2%) sectors.
Biomass, which comprises wood, biogenic waste, and biofuels, is used in all industries. The primary renewable sources used in the industries are wood and the losses and co-products of biofuel production. In contrast, biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel are used in the transportation sector. Wood, trash, solar, and geothermal are the most popular direct energy sources in the home and commercial sectors.
Renewable power consumption in the United States overshadowed coal usage in 2019 for the first time since firewood was the leading fuel source more than 130 years ago. The move highlights a decade-long slump in the coal industry, driven by governmental attempts to limit greenhouse gas emissions and severe competition from natural gas, wind, and solar power sources. In the United States, approximately 56% of commercially generated renewable energy is used mainly from wind and hydroelectric power.
The decline in coal power reflected the closure or temporary shutdown of other coal power plants and an increase in the UK’s carbon price, making coal plants less profitable to operate. To meet climate change targets, the government has pushed for a green energy transition through subsidies for renewable generation and punitive actions against coal plants. Renewable energy is being used increasingly in all areas of the United States.