For the first time ever, official energy statistics from the US government show renewables are on track to generate more electricity than coal for the entire year of 2020, according to projections.
In April last year, when some coal plants were under maintenance, the US achieved this major environmental milestone for a brief and uneventful month that you probably didn’t even notice. But in 2020, amid a global pandemic, almost everything has been turned on its head, including the way we produce and consume energy.
A new report from the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicts the country will generate 5 percent less total electric power in 2020, leading to a historic 11 percent drop in carbon emissions.
In fact, in the coming months EIA expects US coal generation will fall by nearly 25 percent, and this time, it might not recover to the same extent.
Come next year, as the economy gets its footing and stay-at-home orders are gradually lifted, the EIA is pretty sure the nation’s carbon emissions will once again increase, but only about 5 percent and not because of the return of coal.
In 2021, the report expects coal consumption to recover by only 10 percent or so, while natural gas and renewables will pick up the rest of the slack, with the latter really stepping up to the task.
These are just predictions of course, but as wind and solar become more affordable than ever, the EIA thinks there will be an 11 percent increase in electricity generation from renewable energy.
“Although EIA expects renewable energy to be the fastest-growing source of electricity generation in 2020, the effects [of] the economic slowdown related to COVID-19 are likely to affect new generating capacity builds during the next few months,” the report reads.
“EIA expects the electric power sector will add 20.4 gigawatts of new wind capacity and 12.7 gigawatts of utility-scale solar capacity in 2020. However, these forecasts are subject to a high degree of uncertainty, and EIA will continue to monitor reported planned capacity builds.”
Simply put, alternatives to coal are getting cheaper and more competitive. So much so, that some experts think the current pandemic is the final kiss of death for this particular fossil fuel.
Rob Jackson, the chair of Global Carbon Project, told The Guardian he thinks coal will never again reach its peak.
“COVID-19 will slash coal emissions so much this year that the industry will never recover, even with a continued build-out in India and elsewhere,” he said.
“The crash in natural gas prices, record-cheap solar and wind power, and climate and health concerns have undercut the industry permanently.”
When it comes to fossil fuels, coal is the biggest source of carbon dioxide emissions, and its impacts on air pollution and public health are devastating.
Just this month, new computer simulations found that in almost all regions of the world, the costs of exiting coal are nothing compared to the future health and environmental benefits we would inevitably reap.
Exiting coal would certainly go a long way towards fulfilling our current emission pledges, which we have done little to achieve. The authors of these models found if all countries shunned coal, we would be halfway towards our goals for limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
If the coronavirus pandemic is truly enough to seal coal’s fate, it could give the world a huge advantage in the climate crisis. Only time will tell.
The report was published by EIA.