Solar, wind and hydro power could soon surpass coal

Coal, long the king of America's electric grid, will soon get toppled by renewable energy.

Coal, long the king of America's electric grid, will soon get toppled by renewable energy.

Solar and wind power are growing so rapidly that for the first time ever, the United States will likely get more power in 2021 from renewable energy than from coal, according to projections from the Institute for Energy Economic and Financial Analysis.

This milestone is being driven by the gangbusters growth for solar and wind as well as the stunning collapse of coal. And it comes as the United Nations warned on Tuesday that countries are not doing enough to keep the planet's temperature from rising to near-catastrophic levels.

"The next piece of the energy transition is very close at hand," said PJ Deschenes, partner at Greentech Capital Advisors, a boutique investment bank focused on clean energy. "Coal is coming offline as fast or faster than we anticipated."

For decades, coal was the cornerstone of the power industry. But a combination of environmental concerns, aging plants and competition have caused a sharp decline in coal usage in the United States.

Coal provided about half of America's power generation between 2000 and 2010. However, coal usage started to fall sharply late in the last decade because of the abundance of cheap natural gas. Coal was dethroned by natural gas in 2016, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

'Negative feedback loop'

Despite President Donald Trump's promise to save coal, the industry's decline has only continued. This was underlined by last month's bankruptcy of Murray Energy, America's largest private coal mining company.

US power companies are rapidly retiring old coal plants and replacing them with wind and solar farms. Utility companies like PSEG and Xcel Energy, which long relied on coal, are now pledging to deliver carbon-free electricity.

Navajo Generation Station, the largest coal-fired power plant in the West, permanently closed last week. The shutdown means that South Nevada's electricity is now coal-free.

US power plants are expected to consume less coal next year than at any point since 1978, according to the EIA. That will cause coal's market share to drop below 22%, compared with 28% in 2018. That shrinking market share makes existing coal plants even less profitable.

"It's a negative feedback loop," said Greentech's Deschenes.

This trend is playing out overseas as well. Global electricity production from coal is on track to fall by a record 3% in 2019, according to CarbonBrief. That drop is being driven by record declines from Germany and South Korea as well as the first dip in India in at least three decades.

2021 is a 'crossover year'

Dennis Wamsted, editor and analyst at IEEFA, is predicting that 2021 will be the "crossover year" in the United States, where coal is supplanted by renewables, which include solar, wind, hydropower, biomass and geothermal.

"Coal and renewables are rapidly heading in opposite directions," Wamsted said in a report."If the crossover doesn't occur in 2021, it will without a doubt do so by 2022."

This transition has already played out in Texas, which was long a coal-first state. During the first half of this year, wind power surpassed coal for the first time in Texas history. Wind made up just 0.8% of the Lone Star State's power as of 2003. That figure has climbed to 22%, compared with 21% for coal.

Critics of renewable energy correctly note that the sun doesn't always shine and the wind doesn't always blow.

That's why Deschenes said he hopes these milestones draw greater attention to the importance of energy storage systems that hold renewable energy for when it's needed.

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