WASHINGTON – The United States is on track to produce more electricity this year from renewable energy than from coal for the first time, government projections show, a transformation driven in part by the coronavirus pandemic, with profound implications in the fight against climate change.
It is a milestone that seemed unthinkable a decade ago, when coal was so dominant that it provided almost half of the country's electricity. And this is despite the Trump administration's three-year effort to try to revive the struggling industry by weakening pollution rules at coal-burning plants.
Now, the coronavirus outbreak is pushing coal producers into the deepest crisis of all time.
As factories, retailers, restaurants and office buildings closed across the country to slow the spread of the coronavirus, demand for electricity has dropped dramatically. And because coal plants often cost more to operate than gas or renewable plants, many utility companies are cutting coal power first in response.
"The outbreak has put all the pressure on the steroid coal industry," said Jim Thompson, a coal analyst at IHS Markit.
In the first four and a half months of this year, the American fleet of wind turbines, solar panels and hydroelectric plants produced more electricity than coal in 90 separate days – breaking last year's record of 38 days for the entire year. On May 1 in Texas, wind alone provided almost three times as much electricity as coal.
O most recent report from the Energy Information Administration estimates that America's total coal consumption will fall by almost a quarter this year, and coal plants are expected to supply only 19% of the country's electricity, falling for the first time below nuclear and renewable energy. category that includes wind, solar, hydroelectric, geothermal and biomass.
The natural gas plants, which supply 38% of the country's energy, should keep their production stable thanks to low fuel prices.
The decline in coal has major consequences for climate change.
Coal is the dirtiest of all fossil fuels, and its decline has already helped reduce US carbon dioxide emissions by 15% since 2005. This year, the agency expects US emissions to drop another 11%, the biggest drop in at least 70 years. While the pandemic has made these projections uncertain, the decline is likely to occur partly because Americans are not driving as much, but mainly because coal plants are operating less frequently.
Even if coal manages to exceed expectations and recover later this year, experts say that the dramatic change in the country's electrical system is unlikely to be just a speck.
Utilities and large technology companies, large consumers of electricity, are increasingly turning to wind and solar plants, both because renewable energies are getting cheaper and cheaper as technology improves, but also because of concerns about air pollution and climate change. Large energy companies, including Duke Energy in the Southeast and Xcel Energy in the Midwest, Currently, it plans to retire at least four dozen large coal plants by 2025, and no concessionaire is planning to build a new coal facility.
"The network is changing much faster than expected," said Daniel Cohan, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University. "A decade ago, I was teaching my students that coal was the source of" base charge "that works all the time, and solar power was something you could use if you wanted to pay more. Now, coal has been pushed to the margins and are the cheapest options for wind and solar energy. "
At the same time, electricity companies used to worry that using more than just a small fraction of wind and solar energy would make it difficult to keep the country's lights on, since the sun is not always shining and the wind is not always is blowing. Since then, utilities have found ways to solve this problem using technologies like natural gas plants that can be quickly activated to meet peak demand, better weather forecasts and, increasingly, vast battery storage projects, as planned in Nevada and California.
The Energy Information Administration expects wind and solar generation to increase this year, although the Covid-19 outbreak is likely to halt many projects as supply chains are disrupted. For example, Pacificorp, a large northwest utility company, said it was facing challenges in completing a large 503 megawatt wind farm under construction in Wyoming, although a spokesman said the company was trying to find "creative solutions. "to find a November Deadline.
Analysts said coal energy could recover moderately in the next year, if natural gas prices rise from current lows. Still, even in this scenario, the E.I.A. it currently does not see coal surpassing renewable energy.
For the time being, it is often cheaper for many utility companies to generate electricity from natural gas than coal because of an excess of gas across the country, partly thanks to a hot winter that has reduced the demand for heating to gas, combined with the hydraulic fracturing boom. In places like Texas, natural gas is often an abundant by-product produced by drills that use fracking to extract crude oil.
More recently, however, the coronavirus has caused a drop in oil prices worldwide. Currently, many oil drills are being forced to close their wells, which could mean less natural gas next year and potentially higher prices, helping to recover coal.
However, there is a wildcard: if the financial pain caused by the pandemic drives utilities to speed up their decisions to retire more coal plants, the industry will have a much harder time recovering in the coming years. After a coal burning plant is closed, it is difficult to restart.
"I wouldn't be surprised if we see some companies speed up their plans to retire more coal plants," said Manan Ajuha, an energy analyst at S&P Global Platts.
A danger sign for many coal plants is that they are operating less frequently. In 2010, the average US coal plant had about 67% of its capacity. Last year, that fraction fell below half for the first time in decades and is falling further this year.
"The less you use these plants, the more expensive they are out there," said Seth Feaster, data analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. His group recently estimated that by 2025, coal could represent 10% or less of the electricity generated in the United States.
The most recent example: this month, Great River Energy, a Minnesota-based cooperative, said he planned to close its giant Coal Creek Station, a 1.1 gigawatt coal plant in North Dakota, by 2022. While a concessionaire official attributed the decision to long-term economic trends, not to the pandemic, the closure is notable for which replace: plans to add 1.1 gigawatts of new wind capacity, a small amount of gas, in addition to an unprecedented battery which can store wind energy for long periods.
The coal industry, for its part, says that many of these pensions can be short-sighted. Michelle Bloodworth, executive director of America & # 39; s Power, an industry trade group, argued that coal plants remained a critical pillar of the country's electricity mix and a valuable hedge for rising natural gas prices, such as have done in the past during a particularly severe winter storms when the demand for gas heating may increase.
"The coal fleet is not dead," said Bloodworth. "There is still a significant amount of coal that will be needed in the future to ensure that we do not take chances and threaten the reliability of the network."
While President Trump took office promising to save the coal industry and revive mining jobs, he has so far failed. His effort to relax the expensive air pollution rules at coal plants has not prevented the plants from closing. And several government plans to indirectly subsidize coal plants, on the grounds that they can improve the reliability of the network, have come to nothing.
The United States is not yet at the point reached in Britain, which now goes for weeks at a time without using coal energy. But parts of the United States are now getting a preview of life when coal is on the decline and renewable energy is on the rise.
"In some parts of the country, we now see renewable penetration reaching 60 or 70% in a few days," said Nat Kreamer, chief executive of Advanced Energy Economy, a clean energy business group, "and no one is shouting that they don't I can do that. ”