Renewables surpass coal in US energy generation for first time in 130 years
‘We are seeing the end of coal,’ says analyst as energy source with biggest impact on climate crisis falls for sixth year in a row.
Solar, wind and other renewable sources have toppled coal in energy generation in the United States for the first time in over 130 years, with the coronavirus pandemic accelerating a decline in coal that has profound implications for the climate crisis.
Not since wood was the main source of American energy in the 19th century has a renewable resource been used more heavily than coal, but 2019 saw a historic reversal, according to US government figures.
Coal consumption fell by 15%, down for the sixth year in a row, while renewables edged up by 1%. This meant renewables surpassed coal for the first time since at least 1885, a year when Mark Twain published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and America’s first skyscraper was erected in Chicago.
Electricity generation from coal fell to its lowest level in 42 years in 2019, with the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecasting that renewables will eclipse coal as an electricity source this year. On 21 May, the year hit its 100th day in which renewables have been used more heavily than coal.
“Coal is on the way out, we are seeing the end of coal,” said Dennis Wamsted, analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. “We aren’t going to see a big resurgence in coal generation, the trend is pretty clear.”
The ongoing collapse of coal would have been nearly unthinkable a decade ago, when the fuel source accounted for nearly half of America’s generated electricity. That proportion may fall to under 20% this year, with analysts predicting a further halving within the coming decade.
A rapid slump since then has not been reversed despite the efforts of the Trump administration, which has dismantled a key Barack Obama-era climate rule to reduce emissions from coal plants and eased requirements that prevent coal operations discharging mercury into the atmosphere and waste into streams.
Coal releases more planet-warming carbon dioxide than any other energy source, with scientists warning its use must be rapidly phased out to achieve net-zero emissions globally by 2050 and avoid the worst ravages of the climate crisis.
Countries including the UK and Germany are in the process of winding down their coal sectors, although in the US the industry still enjoys strong political support from Trump.