Renewables – solar, wind and other sources have surpassed coal in the US energy generation for the very first time in more than 130 years, with the COVID-19 pandemic accelerating a decline in coal, an energy source with the biggest impact on the climate crisis.
A renewable resource has never been used more heavily than coal since wood was the primary source of energy in America in the 19th century. However, 2019 saw a historic reversal, according to US government figures.
For the sixth year in a row, the consumption of coal fell by 15%, while renewables edged up by 1%. Renewables surpassed coal for the first time, at least since 1885, a year when Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn published and America’s first skyscraper was erected in Chicago.
In 2019, electricity generation from coal plunged to its lowest level in 42 years, with the forecast from the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) that renewables will eclipse coal as a source of electricity in the current year. On 21st May, the year hit its 100th day, during which renewables have been used more heavily compared to coal.
“Coal is on the way out, we are seeing the end of coal,” said Dennis Wamsted, an analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. “We aren’t going to see a big resurgence in coal generation, the trend is pretty clear.”
A decade ago, when this fuel source accounted for almost half of America’s generated electricity, the ongoing collapse of coal would have been nearly unthinkable. This year, that proportion may fall to under 20% and analysts predicting a further halving within the next decade.
Since then, despite the efforts of the Trump administration, that include dismantling a key climate rule of Barack Obama-era to reduce emissions from coal plants and eased requirements that prevent coal operations from discharging mercury into the atmosphere and waste into streams, the rapid slump has not been reversed.
Coal releases more carbon dioxide compared to any other energy source that is warming the planet. Scientists warned that its use must be rapidly phased out to achieve net-zero emissions globally by 2050 and avoid the worst ravages of the climate crisis.
The coal industry in the US still enjoys strong political support from President Trump when countries, including the UK and Germany, are in the process of winding down their coal sectors.
“It’s a big moment for the market to see renewables overtake coal,” said Ben Nelson, lead coal analyst at Moody’s. “The magnitude of intervention to aid coal has not been sufficient to fundamentally change its trajectory, which is sharply downwards.”
According to Nelson, although coal production expected to plummet by a quarter this year, he stressed that declaring the demise of the industry is “a very tough statement to make,” mainly due to the ongoing exports of coal and its extensive use in steel-making. The power purchase agreements exist between rural communities and coal plants, meaning these contracts would have to end before coal use was halted.
A barrage of problems beset the coal sector, predominantly from cheap, abundant gas that has displaced it as a reliable energy source and then the Covid-19 outbreak that has exacerbated this trend. Because of plunging electricity demand following the shutting of offices, factories, and retailers, utilities have plenty of extra energy to choose from, and coal comes last in the options as it is more expensive to run than gas, solar, wind or nuclear.
Hundreds of closures were forced over the past decade as many US coal plants are aging and costly to operate. This year alone, power companies have announced plans to shutter 13 coal plants, including the large Edgewater facility outside Sheboygan, Wisconsin, the Coal Creek Station plant in North Dakota, and the Four Corners generating station in New Mexico, one of America’s largest carbon dioxide emitters.
The last coal facility left in New York State closed earlier this year.
The additional pressure of the pandemic “will likely shutter the US coal industry for good,” said Yuan-Sheng Yu, senior analyst at Lux Research. “It is becoming clear that Covid-19 will lead to a shake-up of the energy landscape and catalyze the energy transition, with investors eyeing new energy sector plays as we emerge from the pandemic.”
Though climate campaigners have cheered the decline of coal, the fuel is mostly being replaced by gas in the US, which burns more cleanly compared to coal but its production still emits a sizable amount of carbon dioxide and methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
Renewables that accounted for 11% of total US energy consumption last year have to radically expand their share if dangerous climate change is to be avoided. Petroleum made up 37% of the total, followed by gas at 32%. Renewables marginally edged out coal, while nuclear stood at 8%.
“Getting past coal is a big first hurdle but the next round will be the gas industry,” said Wamsted. “There are emissions from gas plants and they are significant. It’s certainly not over.”