Renewable Sources Overtake Coal in US Energy Supply

Renewable energy sources like solar and wind are finally overtaking coal.

Renewable energy has always been somewhat of a distant pipe dream. We really want it to happen, but the numbers make it seem far too expensive and inefficient compared to fossil fuels. Well, it seems that we’ve finally reached a tipping point as renewable sources have overtaken coal in US energy production for 40 consecutive days now.

What does that mean?

Every day from March 25th to the 5th of May, renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and hydro have generated more electricity than coal-burning plants. Forty days may not sound like much, but the previous record was only nine days, back in 2019. And in that entire year, the total number of days that renewables overtook coal was only 38.

This means that clean, free, renewable energy is finally viable. Hydroelectric power is actually down by 0.7% between 2014 and 2019 due to droughts, so it isn’t contributing to this milestone. It’s primarily solar and wind that have been quickly catching up with coal, and are looking at an additional 11% growth in 2020.

On the flip side, coal use for energy has been dropping steadily, despite U.S. President Donald Trump’s promises. In 2014, coal accounted for 38.6% of U.S. power generation. In 2019, that figure dropped to 23.4%. Furthermore, coal energy generation was ramped down recently due to the pandemic reducing the industrial need for energy. Coal is expected to fall another 20% in 2020.

This is the result of government subsidies, environmental awareness, and grid operators favoring the lower cost of renewables.

What’s the downside?

The U.S. Department of energy has warned that over-reliance on renewables can reduce the reliability of the grid. That renewables depend on the unpredictable availability of sunshine and wind. Whereas fossil fuels can be abundantly stored until needed.

There’s a lot wrong with that argument. First, batteries are a thing. We are able to store energy much better than we could ten or even five years ago. Improvements in lithium-ion technology as well as falling costs have made battery storage viable in cars, high-powered electronics, and even homes. Products like the Tesla Powerwall allow the storage of generated solar energy for use at night or on cloudy days. New battery technologies are also promising.

Second, oil cost less than nothing on 4/20/2020. Of course it has since recovered, but this kind of volatility could affect consumer confidence and also the incentive for countries to produce it. Major producers like Saudi Arabia and Russia are likely to start diversifying their revenue stream and pivoting away from oil to avoid putting all their eggs in the same basket.

Third, decentralized energy. Yes, a centralized grid would indeed find renewables unreliable because they would need endless acres of land to generate electricity for everyone. With a distributed grid however, every home can generate its own electricity and sell the excess. There’s no single point of failure or pressure at peak demand. And of course, no single entity that benefits from such a universally needed resource.