Illustration for article titled U.S. Renewables Are Set to Generate More Electricity Than Coal for the First Time
Photo: AP

This is set to be the year renewables take off. A new report from the Energy Information Administration shows that electricity generation from renewables is finally set to surpass that of coal, a major milestone in the efforts to a clean energy economy. The coronavirus is helping drive this shift.

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The report outlines the way the pandemic has completely transformed the way the U.S. consumes and generates its energy. As people stay home and businesses remain closed, the EIA expects electricity demand to fall. With it, generation is also expected to decline by 5 percent this year. That will hit coal particularly hard, with a forecasted dip in coal electricity generation of 25 percent. That means that coal generation will make up a mere 19 percent of the sector, dropping to its lowest point in some 40 years.

Meanwhile, renewables are seeing the realest come up. In 2020, the EIA projects renewables generation to jump by 11 percent because renewables are increasingly becoming the more affordable energy option. As a result, its share of electricity generation is expected to pass coal for the first time.

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The drop in dirty energy will also lead to a huge dip in U.S. carbon emissions. EIA projections show that emissions tied to energy could plummet an astounding 11 percent this year, the single biggest drop in U.S. history.

Coal and other fossil fuel demand could bounce back in 2021 as people begin moving about and using more electricity. Emissions will rise, too, with the EIA forecasting a 5 percent bump up. But fossil fuels are unlikely to return to pre-2020 levels. While the pandemic has caused a major shock to the fossil fuel industry, it’s in line with trends before the global economic crisis hit.

Fossil fuels—especially coal—were already preparing for their respective funerals. Coal has been declining for more than a decade now as it becomes economically unviable. Natural gas has been replacing it as it makes more economic sense for energy companies even if it’s a poor environmental choice. The methane released during the lifetime of gas is a major contributor to the climate crisis, and scientists have been finding that methane emissions are worse than we thought.

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Renewables have also been dropping in price and as have storage prices. That’s allowing renewables to continue to grow even in our current era.

While this is not the ideal way to wean ourselves off dirty energy, these changes could help pave the way for a carbon-free future. Our government representatives on the right don’t want to see that happen, but market forces are forcing the issue. Look at what happened to coal even before the pandemic. The industry was in free fall. President Donald Trump tried to revive that industry, and he’s failed. The industry continues to suffer to the detriment of the coal miners who depend on these jobs for their income. Those same miners face even more risk as covid-19 makes its way through Appalachia.

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These workers need access to a proper transition away from this industry and a role in the new clean energy economy to come. Numbers don’t lie: Renewables are here to stay. 

Senior staff writer, Earther. All things environmental justice, please. I'm addicted to Stardew and love few things more than I love my cat.

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