For the first time ever, renewable energy supplied more power to the U.S. electricity grid than coal-fired plants for 47 days straight. The run is impressive because it trounces the previous record of nine continuous days last June and exceeds the total number of days renewables beat coal in all of 2019 (38 days).
In a recent report, the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) details how the streak was first observed on 25 March and continued through to 10 May, the day the data was last analyzed.
“We’ll probably track it again at the end of May, so the period could actually be longer,” says Dennis Wamsted, an energy analyst at IEEFA. Already, the figures for April speak volumes: wind, hydropower, and utility-scale solar sources produced 58.7 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity compared with coal’s 40.6 TWh—or 22.2% and 15.3% of the market respectively.
In reality, the gap between the two sources is likely to be much larger, says Wamsted. That’s because the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) database, where IEEFA obtains its data from, excludes power generated by rooftop solar panels, which itself is a huge power source.
The news that renewables overtook coal in the month of April isn’t surprising, says Brian Murray, director of the Duke University Energy Initiative. The first time this happened was last year, also in April. The month marks “shoulder season,” he says, “when heating is coming off but air-conditioning hasn’t really kicked in yet.” It’s when electricity demand is typically the lowest, which is why many power plants schedule their yearly maintenance during this time.
Spring is also when wind and hydropower generation peak, says Murray. Various thermal forces come into play with the Sun’s new positioning, and the melting snowpacks feed rivers and fill up reservoirs.
“Normally you would expect some sort of rebound of coal generation in the summer, but I think there’s a variety of reasons why that’s not going to happen this year,” he says. “One has to do with coronavirus.”
With the pandemic placing most of the country in lockdown and economic activity declining, the EIA estimates that U.S. demand for electric power will fall by 5% in 2020. This, in turn, will drive coal production down by a quarter. In contrast, renewables are still expected to grow by 11%. The reason behind this is partly due to how energy is dispatched to the grid. Because of cheaper costs, renewables are used first if available, followed by nuclear power, natural gas, and then finally coal.
Coronavirus aside, the transition has been a long time coming. “Renewables have been on an inexorable rise for the last 10 years, increasingly eating coal’s lunch,” says Mike O’Boyle, director of electricity policy at Energy Innovation, a San Francisco-based think tank. The average coal plant in the U.S. is 40 years old, and these aging, inefficient plants are finding it increasingly difficult to compete against ever-cheaper renewable energy sources.
A decade ago, the average coal plant generated as much as 67% of its capacity. Today, that figure has dropped to 48%. And in the next five years, coal production is expected to fall to two-thirds of 2014 levels—a decline of 90 gigawatts (GW)—as increasing numbers of plants shut.
“And that’s without policy changes that we anticipate will strengthen in the U.S., in which more than a third of people are in a state, city, or utility with a 100% clean energy goal,” says O’Boyle. Already, 30 states have renewable portfolio standards, or policies designed to increase electricity generation from renewable resources.
The transition towards renewables is one that’s being observed all across the world today. Global use of coal-powered electricity fell 3% last year, the biggest drop on record after nearly four decades. In Europe, the figure was 24%. The region has been remarkably progressive in its march towards renewable energy—last month saw both Sweden and Austria closing their last remaining coal plants, while the U.K. went through its longest coal-free stretch (35 days) since the Industrial Revolution more than 230 years ago.
But coal is still king in many parts of the world. For developing countries where electricity can be scarce and unreliable, the fossil fuel is often seen as the best option for power.
The good news, however, is that the world’s two largest consumers of coal are investing heavily in renewables. Although China is still heavily reliant coal, it also boasts the largest capacity of wind, solar, and hydropower in the world today. India, with it abundant sunshine, is pursuing an aggressive solar plan. It is building the world’s largest solar park, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pledged that the country will produce 100 GW of solar power—five times what the U.S. generates—by 2022.
Today, renewable energy sources offer the cheapest form of power in two-thirds of the world, and they look set to get cheaper. They now provide up to 30% of global electricity demand, a figure is expected to grow to 50% by 2050. As a recent United Nations report put it: renewables are now “looking all grown up.”
Sandy Ong is an independent science journalist based in Singapore. For IEEE Spectrum, she often writes about the quest for better batteries. Ong also covers stories about health, tech, and the environment in Asia and beyond. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Newsweek, WiredUK, and other publications. You may have even heard her on BBC Radio 5 Live’s “Up All Night” if you were listening at just the right time. Ong holds a bachelor’s degree in life sciences and a master’s degree in forensic science, and is a graduate of New York University’s Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program.