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US Renewable Energy Output Surpasses Coal For First Time in US History

Solar cell panels in the foreground, wind turbines in the middle ground, and electricity pylons in the background; unidentified location
Solar cell panels in the foreground, wind turbines in the middle ground, and electricity pylons in the background; unidentified location. (Photo: Pixabay)

“The fate of coal has been sealed, the market has spoken.”

This April, the United States generated more power from renewable resources than coal for the first time in U.S. history, according to a new report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

Renewables produced 23% of total U.S. power while coal only produced 20%, in a shift that energy experts say reflects both temporary seasonal fluctuations and long-term improvements in renewable technology.

In the short-term, routine Spring-maintenance and lower energy demand permitted coal to take a back seat in April, and the report’s authors predict it will resurge over renewables for the remaining months of 2019. However, EIA predicts renewables will permanently overtake coal by the mid-2020s, and as Axios notes, “don’t forget they’ve underestimated renewables’ growth in the past.”

Renewables recently became cheaper than coal in most circumstances, contributing to the production of 15 new gigawatts of U.S. wind and solar capacity in 2018.

“Wind generation reached a record monthly high in April 2019 of 30.2 million megawatt-hours (MWh). Solar generation—including utility-scale solar photovoltaics and utility-scale solar thermal—reached a record monthly high in June 2018 of 7.8 million MWh and will likely surpass that level this summer,” said the report.

The report also noted that hydroelectric power, which remains the biggest source of renewable energy for most months, surges in the Spring as melting snowpack provides more water supply for downstream generators.

At least 50 coal-powered plants have closed since President Trump entered office, demonstrating realities of the changing energy market that cannot be reversed by environmental deregulation.

“The fate of coal has been sealed, the market has spoken,” Michael Webber, an energy expert at the University of Texas, told the Guardian. “The trend is irreversible now, the decline of coal is unstoppable despite Donald Trump’s rhetoric.”

“Trump has made a promise that will be broken, which is a tragedy for coal miners who were told they don’t need to get other jobs or get new skills,” said Webber. “They have been sent the wrong signal and now there are lay-offs.”

But while the new report is undoubtedly a landmark in the transition to clean energy, Bloomberg’s Justin Fox argues it is not as hopeful as it looks upon first glance. Increased natural gas production is the driving force behind coal’s decline, not renewables, as new fossil fuel infrastructure is being rapidly developed to facilitate the cheaper fuel source. And while natural gas emits significantly less carbon than coal, critics warn the creation of new fossil fuel infrastructure will undermine efforts to stave off the worse effects of climate change.

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Peter Castagno

Peter Castagno is a freelance writer with a Master’s degree in International Conflict Resolution. He has traveled throughout the Middle East and Latin America to gain firsthand insight in some of the world’s most troubled areas, and he plans on publishing his first book in 2019.

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