Pandemic accelerates renewable energy surpassing coal energy in US

In an article by Brad Plumer of The New York Times (see below) called “In a first, renewable energy is poised to eclipse coal,” the growth of renewable energy has been further fueled by the pandemic. This year, renewable energy (solar, wind, bio-mass, geothermal and hydroelectric), will surpass coal as the second largest energy source.

Per Plumer, efforts by the current president to keep propping up coal-burning plants have proven ineffective against market conditions. He notes “Those efforts, however, failed to halt the powerful economic forces that have led utilities to retire hundreds of aging coal plants since 2010 and run their remaining plants less frequently. The cost of building large wind farms has declined more than 40% in that time, while solar costs have dropped more than 80%. And, the price of natural gas, a cleaner-burning alternative to coal, has fallen to historic lows as a result of the fracking boom.”

Plumer adds the impact of COVID-19 which has reduced electricity usage with fewer stores and restaurants open is hastening this trend. “And because coal plants often cost more to operate than gas plants or renewables, many utilities are cutting back on coal power first in response.”

Further, “Coal is the dirtiest of all fossil fuels, and its decline has already helped drive down US carbon dioxide emissions 15% since 2005. This year, the (Energy Information Administration) expects the US emissions to fall by another 11%, the largest drop in at least 70 years.”

Coupled with people driving less and avoiding traveling by airplanes, an upside to COVID-19 is 2020 will be an impactful year on less carbon usage which will help in cleaning air (which is noticeable from satellites) and addressing climate change. As the economy slowly recovers with the majority of people being cautious in their movements and spending patterns, at least this positive impact will continue for more than 2020. And, hopefully with the coal plants being used more and more in the bull pen for extra need, more may be retired.

Still, some folks are surprised by the news of the decline in coal. They should not be. About eight years ago, oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens was on “60 Minutes” and said the future energy source in the windy plains states is wind energy. He added fracking for natural gas will buy time until the cost of wind is more economical. Now, oil rich Texas bears that out with wind energy surpassing coal by itself this year. While Texas produces more wind energy than any other state, Iowa gets over 40% of its electricity from wind and most of the top states in percentage of electricity are plains states.

Not only has coal become relatively more expensive due to the cost declines in other sources, its costs and risk continue beyond the life of the fuel and the plant. Duke Energy and TVA have had to clean up messes from coal ash that have bled into the water systems. And, Duke’s Dan River spill was from a long-ago retired coal plant.

The people I feel for are the coal miners whose hopes have been propped up by politicians who have not been forthcoming. I have known about coal’s demise since that Pickens’ interview and through other news and reading sources. My guess is so have the politicians, yet rather than be truthful and help them plan for new careers, they kept feeding their hopes. And, last time I checked, the wind blows and sun shines in those coal producing states. So, these miners are owed long-time-coming truths and help to find and train for new jobs.

Fossil fuel energy may have seen a global turning point

Earlier this week, Reuters in the UK posted an article called “Fossil fuels for power at turning point as renewable surged in 2019 – data.” A link to the article is below. A few excerpts from the article are telling:

“The use of fossil fuels such as coal and oil for generating electricity fell in 2019 in the United States, the European Union and India, at the same time overall power output rose, a turning point for the global energy mix. Those countries and regions are three of the top four largest producers of power from fossil fuels. The declines suggest the end of the fossil fuel era could be on the horizon, said Tomas Kaberger, an energy professor at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, who provided the power generation data to Reuters.

Kaberger, who is also the chair of the executive board for Japan’s Renewable Energy Institute and a member of the board at Swedish utility Vattenfall AB, provided data covering more than 70% of the world’s power generation that showed for most of 2019 the amount of power sourced from fossil fuels dropped by 156 terawatt hours (TWh) from the year before. That is equal to the entire power output of Argentina in 2018.

The data also indicates that renewable power generation increased at a faster rate than the overall growth in power output for the first time, rising by 297 TWh versus 233 TWh for overall output, Kaberger said.

‘It is economics driving this as low-cost renewable electricity outcompetes against fossil and nuclear power plants,’ said Kaberger.”

The last quote from Kaberger is extremely important. The economics of renewables relative to their fossil fuel counterparts are driving the movement. The argument that renewables cost more is not relevant any more. And, when you factor in the present value of all costs – acquisition, transport, environmental degradation, production, water loss, health, storage, maintenance and litigation – renewables beat the pants off fossil fuel energy.

So, when you hear fossil fuel arguments such as cost, use the above example. When you hear fossil fuel arguments such as jobs, solar and wind energy jobs are growing at double digit rates. The big picture question is if we can use a non-polluting, renewable energy at the same or better cost, and create jobs, is that not the best path forward?