Figures lie and liars figure. Today, anyone with a computer can take raw data and use it to make charts that prove an avocado is actually a ham sandwich. The latest news from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis is that for the first time in US history, renewables are expected to provide more electricity to the US electrical grid than coal.
Here’s the explanation, according to PV Magazine. The figures include hydro power, which typically increases in the spring when snow melt and rains swell America’s rivers with extra water. That phenomenon isn’t new. In fact, it is normal for utility companies to shut down some of their coal-fired generating stations in the spring for routine maintenance because hydro power can pick up the slack.
Nevertheless, the IEEFA thinks when all the numbers are in, hydro and renewables combined will be responsible for more electricity than coal in April and May and that is something that has never happened before. When the spring rains subside and all those coal plants are back online in June, coal will likely exceed the combined output of hydro and renewables once again.
But that’s where the news gets interesting. In the long term, more renewable energy is coming online all the time and more coal-fired plants are being retired all the time. According to Energy Information Administration, coal accounted for 39% of US electricity generation in 2014 but only 27% in 2018. No matter how you slice and dice the data, coal is on the way out as a source of electricity in the US.
The reason, of course, is price. An analysis by Energy Innovation shows that in 74% of cases it is cheaper to build new wind and solar than to keep running existing coal plants today and that number will increase to 86% by 2025. Still, renewables account for less than 10% of all electricity generated in the United States overall at the moment. The big winner the past few years has been natural gas.
Thanks to an aggressive expansion of fracking operations across the country, there is an abundant supply of cheap natural gas available in the country, although it is only cheap because the damage done to the environment to obtain it is not included in the cost. In California, renewables are now cheaper than electricity from gas fired generating stations and that trend is expected to spread across the rest of the country in time.
The question is, will it spread fast enough and wide enough to help tame the ravages of climate change? The trend lines all favor more and more renewable energy, but just as with electric vehicles, the switch over point when renewables and EVs dominate their respective markets is years or even decades away.
The long term trend for renewables is highly favorable. This latest news from IEEFA proves it. But that doesn’t mean we can be complacent in the fight to replace all fossil fuels with non-polluting alternatives. There’s still a long way to go and a lot of push back from entrenched special interests can be anticipated. For renewable energy advocates, it is not yet time to declare victory and leave the battlefield.
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