Will Renewables Finish Ahead of Coal in 2020?

December 23, 2020 | 9:18 am
John Rogers
Energy Campaign Analytic Lead

No question about it: It’s been a marathon, not a sprint, getting through this year fit for the history books. And that’s one theme that’ll stick with me about 2020: the cross-country race for the White House, the relay between the virus onset and the vaccine creation and deployment, the race against time in the face of mounting climate impacts.

Related to the last one is a race in our power sector: the race to make sure that clean energy becomes the primary way we make our electricity. And we might be hitting another major milestone in that journey. Though the numbers aren’t final yet, 2020 might just be the first time in US history that, on an annual basis, renewable energy overtakes coal in the power sector.

Out of the starting gate, into the summer

Renewables got off to a strong start in 2020, including relative to coal, according to preliminary daily data from the US Energy Information Administration (EIA).

  • Spring is a solid time for electricity generation from the three renewable energy sources that EIA’s data present separately: hydropower, wind, and large-scale solar.
  • Electricity demand is lower in spring (less heating and cooling), which favors use-them-while-you’ve-got-them resources like wind and solar over ones whose fuel costs make them more expensive to operate, including coal.
  • This year, starting in March, we also saw the reduced electricity demand from COVID’s effects on the economy.

But renewables’ ascendance also stems from longer-term trends. As my colleague Jeremy Richardson has said, it’s no secret that coal is in structural decline. Coal has lost serious ground, from powering 50% of our electricity supply on an annual basis as recently as 2006, to providing only a projected 20% this year. One factor has been natural gas’s abundance and low prices in recent years. But another has been renewables’ strong growth thanks to dramatic cost declines over the last dozen years.

Those factors together added up to an important shift. By the end of spring, those large renewables had out-generated coal in 120 days (more than two-thirds of days to that point). That included a stretch of more than 60 straight days beginning in March. In all of 2019, by comparison, renewables surpassed coal in fewer than 40 days.

Coal, though, gathered steam as summer heat blazed and electricity demand picked up. By the end of summer, coal’s cumulative generation had moved back ahead of renewables’, or at least of generation from the hydro/wind/large-solar subset.

Where coal and renewables stand

As autumn came to a close (through Dec. 21), here’s where things stood:

  • Coal’s cumulative output was 20% below its 2019 performance to that date.
  • Output from those three renewables combined was up 6%, with wind up 12% year-over-year and large solar up a whopping 22% (and hydro down 4%).

In 2020, coal lost ground, renewables gained. All renewables together just might be passing coal in 2020.

That’s not the whole story, though, because, powerful though those three renewable generation sources are, there’s more to renewables:

  • Small-scale solar, for example, produces more than half as much as large-scale, according to separate monthly EIA data.
  • And those data showed small solar generation up 19% year-on-year in the first three quarters of 2020, despite COVID’s severe disruption of the residential and commercial solar installation industry.

Put those data together, and the numbers add up. Coal provides an important benchmark for renewables’ progress in 2020:

  • With small solar included (with an estimate for the fourth quarter), by autumn’s end renewables had outperformed coal on 168 days, or 48% of days to date.
  • By Dec. 21, coal’s output stood at 740 million megawatt-hours (MWh), while hydro, wind, and large solar together added up to 669 MWh. Small solar increased the generation total to around 710 MWh for those renewables.
  • The small gap remaining means that it would take only a modest amount of geothermal and woody biomass generation for renewables’ total in 2020 to pass coal’s.

Milestone approaching

We’ll have EIA’s daily totals for hydro, wind, and large solar through the end of the year shortly after the ball drops on New Year’s Eve. While data on 2020 totals for the other renewables will take a while longer, that first January report should give us a strong indication for how the large-scale renewables numbers ended up, including with respect to coal’s.

For the record, my money’s on renewables finishing ahead for the year.

Attention will then need to quickly turn to 2021. EIA is projecting coal to rebound somewhat, back to its 2019 percentage of US electricity generation, because they expect natural gas to get more expensive, and cede back ground. EIA is expecting renewable energy generation’s percentage to also grow, but not as much as coal’s. So, in 2021, coal might slip back ahead of renewables.

But not for long. Despite everything 2020 threw at them (and us), wind and solar look to be having record years. Those turbines and panels, many installed in the final months of this year, will be working their magic throughout 2021. And analysts have predicted that, for solar, 2021 will be an even better year for new installations, 2022 almost as strong as 2021, and 2023 the best yet.

And that’s all important, because it’s not just coal that renewables have to pass, but natural gas, which for the moment has a firm hold on being the #1 source of electricity in this country (and grew 3% year-on-year).

That’s one reason the just-passed stimulus bill from Congress is an important next step. It includes extensions of renewable energy tax credits that my colleague Rob Cowin has called “the main federal policy driving the expansion of renewable energy.” Those provisions should provide another strong push for renewables, and for getting clean energy workers back to work.

The incoming Biden administration offers additional strong possibilities for accelerating renewables’ growth, driving the clean energy economy, and driving clean energy job creation. And with appropriate attention to making sure that the jobs created are high quality ones, and that they move toward better representing the diversity of our nation. Equally important will be pushing to prioritize the needs of coal communities as the clean energy transition continues.

Beyond history

As for this year, the history books may well remember 2020 not just for the pandemic, the protests for civil rights, or the politics, but for renewable energy reaching another important milestone in the growth we need from it, passing coal in the US electricity sector.

And for the long term, history seems destined to be on the side of renewables winning the race to lead the electricity sector. And that’s good news indeed.

Posted in: Energy

Tags: 2020, coal, renewables

About the author

More from John

John Rogers is energy campaign analytic lead at the Union of Concerned Scientists with expertise in clean energy technologies and policies and a focus on solar, wind, and natural gas. He co-managed the UCS-led Energy and Water in a Warming World Initiative, a multi-year program aimed at raising awareness of the energy-water connection, particularly in the context of climate change, and motivating and informing effective low-carbon and low-water energy solutions.