The Intertubes are abuzz with news that renewable energy beat out coal for electricity generation in the US during the entire month of April. That’s the first such one-month feat for a combo of wind, solar, and hydropower, which is the reason for all the buzz. On the downside, the trend is being powered by changes in demand resulting from the COVID-19 crisis. Nevertheless, signs are brewing that when the outbreak eases and the economy rebounds, coal will be left behind in the dust.
A Winning Streak For Renewable Energy
The April stats are even more impressive when you consider that the winning streak for clean power actually began on March 25 and went all the way through April. It hit the media radar at Day 40 on May 3. As of May 5, renewables were still on top, so doing the math that’s 42 days.
Our friends over at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis took a look at the figures through the US Energy Information Agency’s electricity tracker and outlined a stark year-over-year change:
“These figures are even more remarkable when compared to 2019’s total of 38 days when renewables beat coal. Last April had a total of 19 days when this happened—the most of any month in 2019—with the longest continuous stretch lasting just nine days.”
To emphasize: renewable energy beat coal for only 38 days during all of last year. So far this year it has racked up 45 days and 2020 isn’t even half over.
What’s even more impressive is that you don’t even need all three major renewables — wind, solar, and hydro — to beat coal. On a typical day, wind and hydro alone can far exceed coal output. Solar is still odd man out, but a combination of solar with either wind or hydro comes pretty close to meeting coal output.
Nothing Lasts Forever, Coal Edition
As a note of caution, IEEFA notes that an unusual confluence of factors is behind the good news for renewables. Electricity demand is down sharply as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, leaving utilities to cut production where costs are higher. That put coal on the spot compared to other, more economical sources.
Warm weather also contributed to the strong position of renewable energy.
However, when the seasons turn cold again and the COVID-19 outbreak eases, coal is still going to be in a tight spot.
One challenge for the US coal industry is natural gas, which continues to be coal’s single largest competitor for power generation. Gas prices were low to begin with as supply outstripped demand in the US to start the year off. There’s no relief in sight as other leading gas consumers — the food service industry, for example — continue to shrink under the COVID-19 onslaught.
The petrochemical industry could serve as an escape valve for excess natural gas, but that avenue is closing as a much-anticipated new petrochemical hub in Appalachia shows signs of wilting under the COVID stress.
Renewable Energy On The Rise
Speaking of competitors, IEEFA notes that the weak showing for coal this spring is also partly due to new wind and solar capacity coming on board. That’s where the real red flags are.
Back on January 14, the US EIA estimated that new electricity generation capacity for 2020 would be dominated by renewable energy. Out of the anticipated 42 gigawatts, EIA expects wind to account for a full 44%, followed by solar at 32% and natural gas at 22%.
If you’re wondering what happened to hydropower, that’s a good question. EIA estimated that only 2% of new capacity would come from hydro and battery storage combined. The prospects for building new hydropower dams in the US are slim to none, but other forms of aquatically motivated electrons could enable the sector to keep adding capacity incrementally. That includes hydrokinetic energy harvesting, wave energy, and tidal devices, as well as pumped energy storage and other tweaks to existing dams.
Where were we? Oh right, coal. Coal gets barely a mention, except in terms of capacity retirements. For those of you keeping score at home, in January EIA expected coal retirements to total 5.8 gigawatts for the year.
Look Out, Natural Gas
What’s really interesting about the January rundown is that it indicates wind and solar capacity additions are each beating out natural gas by a wide margin.
That’s quite a turnaround for natural gas, which was once the dominant force driving coal out of the picture. Gas still dominates the electricity generation landscape but in terms of new capacity additions gas is becoming a wallflower, and that’s just on the utility scale end of things.
Another red flag for gas is the Energy Department’s promotion of community solar and other distributed energy resources, which focuses on smaller scale, local renewable energy production. There’s not much wiggle room for gas in that area.
Then there’s the whole transmission line bottleneck problem. New natural gas power plants that depend on new transmission lines are in a pickle. Utility-scale renewables are up against the same problem (Grain Belt Express, anyone?), but the distributed energy angle provides developers with other alternatives.
Then there’s the whole hydrogen economy thing. It’s no accident that states in the wind-rich Midwest are suddenly interested in the potential for renewable hydrogen to spur additional wind development. Renewable H2 could be used locally or transported by existing pipelines, railways, and highways instead of depending on new transmission lines.
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Image (screenshot): Electricity Tracker via US Energy Information Agency.