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For the First Time, Green Power Tops Coal Industry in Energy Production in April

Renewable energy outworked coal in April—and will likely do the same in May—though the trend likely won’t last once air-conditioners switch on

(Dennis Shroeder, NREL)
smithsonian.com

It may seem like green energy has stalled out in the United States with some politicians calling for renewed investment in coal, Federal subsidies for renewable energy dropping by half and conflicts with local residents nixing wind farms. But under the radar, wind, solar, geothermal, biomass and hydro power projects have continued apace, so much so that in the month of April green energy reached a mileston. For the first time renewable energy generated more electricity than coal-powered power plants in the U.S., a trend that is likely to continue off and on the next few years.

Nat Egan at CNN reports that recent analysis by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), a non-profit that supports the transition to clean energy, shows that in April, renewables were on track to surpass the roughly 2,000 to 2,200 thousand megawatt hours per day generated by coal. That’s likely to continue through May as well and should happen sporadically throughout the rest of 2019 and 2020.

“Five years ago this never would have been close to happening,” Dennis Wamsted, IEEFA report author tells Egan “The transition that’s going on in the electric sector in the United States has been phenomenal.”

The analysis, based on data collected by the Federal Energy Information Administration, doesn’t mean green energy is now dominant. Wamsted writes that the spring is usually the best time for renewable energy. Because the demand for energy from furnaces and air conditioners is low, many coal plants go temporarily offline for repairs and maintenance. Spring runoff also gives hydropower an annual boost. It will likely be years before renewables surpass coal on an annual basis.

Still, the percentage of energy coming from coal has steadily declined over the last decade, and in 2015 it was exceeded by energy produced from natural gas for the first time. Since then, natural gas has stayed on top, producing about 35 percent of electricity in the U.S. compared to coal’s 27 percent.

Wamsted writes that the tipping point where green energy overtakes coal energy permanently may have already taken place in a surprising location: Texas. Wamsted writes that wind and solar in the state topped the production of coal for the entire first quarter of 2019. Almost three hundred renewable energy projects slated for Texas in the near future should boost its numbers in the coming years.

Texas is not alone. Many other states are investing in renewables and Hawaii, California, New Mexico and other states have announced aggressive carbon-free energy plans, which will necessitate lots of new green energy projects. And there’s another big breakthrough that will make renewables even more competitive. Michael Grunwald at Politico reports that the advent of massive, cheap lithium-ion batteries that can store and release wind and solar-produce energy when needed is making green energy even attractive to energy companies. “This will be like the change from analog to digital, or landlines to cell phones,” Susan Kennedy, CEO of Advanced Microgrid Systems, a company that helps optimize power use says.

The recent stats show green energy is slowly but surely grabbing more of a share of electric generation. “Coal’s proponents may dismiss these monthly and quarterly ups and downs in generation share as unimportant, but we believe they are indicative of the fundamental disruption happening across the electric generation sector,” Wamsted writes. “As natural gas achieved earlier, renewable generation is catching up to coal, and faster than forecast."

Despite the good news on renewables carbon emissions in the United States rose by 3.4 percent last year, reversing a downward trend. The largest contributor was the transportation sector, with airplanes, semi-trucks and cars adding more carbon to the atmosphere than power plants.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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