Update, 5/28/20: The streak made it to 64 days. And as of yesterday, the tally for the year stood at 104 days. It’d be a safe bet to imagine that latter number is going to go up, meaning 2020 will be even more of a record-breaker.
If you need some good news at a time when there’s plenty of the less-good sort, try this: Renewable energy is crossing some really important milestones in its contribution to the US power sector. The latest involve its generation relative to coal’s: A year-to-date performance for renewables that is dramatically above any previous year’s, and a streak going on right now that hints at where our electricity supply needs to head, with renewables overtaking fossil fuels day by day.
Here’s why we’re hitting those milestones. Plus some important next steps—for keeping the transition going, and making sure everybody has an opportunity to be part of the change.
Renewables are beating coal
First, the data. Last month the research institute IEEFA reported that renewables had generated more than coal every day in April. Numbers from a new tool from the US Government’s Energy Information Administration (EIA) show that the trend has continued.
Here’s what the data say:
- As of last Thursday, May 21, we had hit 100 days in 2020 in which renewables have beaten coal. That’s more than two and half times as many days as in all of 2019 (38), and 70% of the days so far this year.
- Nestled in that first milestone is another one: Renewables had also beaten coal for 60 days straight (and was still going). In 2019, the longest streak was 9 days long.
- The daily ratios of renewables to coal have also changed impressively: While in 2019 the best day saw renewables generating 154% as much electricity as coal, already in 2020 we’ve seen more than two dozen days above that 154% level, and as high as 196% (that is, almost twice as much renewable energy as coal).
Here, in black and white, is what that all looks like on a daily basis (2019, and 2020 to date, with each black stripe indicating a day where coal bested renewables, and white indicating a renewables-on-top day):
Note the early advent this year of the white lines, the acceleration of their frequency as spring neared, and, of course, the unbroken streak up to today.
Here’s another way of looking at the data, showing the difference between coal and renewables generation, with black indicating when coal was higher, and blue showing renewables-heavy days:
Several missing pieces in these EIA data would each make the numbers even more impressive for renewables. The dataset is just for the contiguous 48 states; in both Alaska and Hawaii renewables have been handily beating coal every month for at least the last few years. “Renewables” in the data used for these calculations include wind, solar, and hydro—the three largest renewable sources, sure, but not the whole picture. For solar, EIA’s dataset doesn’t include small-scale systems, including rooftop solar, which is an increasingly important omission; in 2019, those systems accounted for a third of solar generation. The output from just those two missing pieces (early data here) would have bumped up the year-to-date tally by maybe a dozen days.
Why are renewables beating coal?
So why is this happening? Coal and renewables’ changing fortunes stem from several different factors, peculiar to this moment, seasonal, or long term.
Demand is down. One factor has to do with the COVID crisis, and what it has done to our economy. Having factories, shops, and offices closed has meant a substantial drop in electricity demand, and the extra residential electricity use from stay-at-home orders hasn’t made up for that.
Our electricity demand gets met (generally) by using—“dispatching”—first the sources that are cheapest to operate, then more expensive stuff, then, for any peaks, the most expensive. Sources with no fuel costs—think wind, solar, and hydro—make the most sense to use first. Sources that require fuel (= cost) come later, and, when demand is lower, don’t necessarily even make the cut.
Since coal is far from the cheapest source these days, it’s increasingly in that stay-on-the-sidelines category.
Spring is good. Another factor at play in renewables’ strong performance is that spring is a good time for the sources in question. Wind is flourishing, hydro is nourished by snowmelt and spring rains, and solar is loving the approach of the summer solstice. Coal is also generally needed less as heating needs decline.
Renewables have been gaining. The biggest factor in this reversal of fortunes, though, is two really important long-term trends: Coal has been losing ground, and renewables have been gaining, for years.
Coal’s generation in January and February, for example, was down 36% and 31%, respectively, from the same months the year before, according to those EIA figures. Large solar, meanwhile, generated 17% and 32% more in those months, and wind was up 10% and 15%. Other, more inclusive EIA data shows even stronger gains by wind and, with smaller solar included, shows February-to-February solar overall up almost 40%. (Even accounting for the Leap Day.)
Note that January and February were before the COVID crisis had become a noticeable factor in this country’s energy use.
This isn’t just a blip
One other clear sign that this switch to renewables over coal isn’t temporary: We’ve known it was coming. Coal’s downward trend has been impossible to miss. While coal supplied around half of the country’s electricity as recently as 2008, by last year it had plunged to less than a quarter.
Meanwhile renewables had their own trend—upward—that was even harder to miss. Wind and solar grew from if-I-squint-I-can-just-about-make-out-a-wind-turbine in 2007 (less than 1%) to within a whisker of 10% last year.
And we have had the crossover point in our sights. The EIA’s Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO) from January (again, pre-COVID) projected that coal generation would drop to 21% in 2020 and 2021, and that renewables together would grow to 19% in 2020 and 22% in 2021. Particularly with the added consideration of small-scale solar, which wasn’t included in those projections, it was clear that the switch point was nigh.
In fact, the latest EIA STEO projects that renewables will pass coal on an annual basis this year, for the first time since coal-fired power plants took over our electricity grids decades ago. EIA now projects that coal will fall to under 19% of US electricity supply this year, versus a projected renewables contribution of more than 20% (itself a clean energy milestone we had been watching for).
But the work isn’t done
So where does that leave us? We’re still in the middle of a pandemic, so there are all kinds of things that we need to leaders to do to restore and protect public health, protect workers, get our economy moving again—and in ways that fix inequities, not perpetuate them.
There are also things that need to happen in terms of the power sector transition under way. The numbers offered above are the result of past investments and forward-looking policies, and momentum is carrying some renewable energy construction through even now. But it’s not at the scale that had been projected. (It’s hard to do rooftop solar, for example, if you can’t safely visit people’s homes.) The result has been some 600,000 US clean energy workers out of work, and an expected 38% drop in solar jobs versus what had been projected for June.
Congress is a key piece of moving things forward on renewables, so we need them supporting things like electricity grid modernization, clean energy financing, and clean energy manufacturing. States are key too: We need them upping and sustaining the policies that have been so important for driving clean energy progress and job creation at a more local level.
Another important piece of the transition is considering and supporting coal communities that are wrestling with the one-two punch of coal’s decline and the COVID crisis. That will take, in the words of my colleague Dr. Jeremy Richardson, “robust and sustained support from the federal government to help drive community-led solutions”—worker training, community economic development, and focused infrastructure development and environmental cleanup, for starters.
But that transition needs to take place. And having renewable energy surpass coal on a daily, monthly, and likely annual basis is a set of milestones to behold. They represent the type of transformation we need to see, not just in the power sector, but across our economy: fossil fuels giving way to clean energy, coal mines and smokestacks yielding to wind turbines and solar arrays.
How many more days the current renewables-over-coal streak lasts depends on a lot of factors, including weather and electricity demand. In the bigger picture, we need to find ways to keep the momentum going, to keep clean energy growing—with high quality jobs and economic development and energy security along with it, and support for those in danger of being left behind.
For now, at a time of great uncertainty about so many other things, one thing is clear: 2020 is one for the record books already. And it’s equally clear that these records were made to be broken, again and again and again.