In a historic first, renewable energy sources have eclipsed old-school coal generation in the United States, according to data released by the U.S. Energy Information Administration and an analysis by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.
While the landmark achievement may be a boon for the renewable energy sector—which includes geothermal, biomass, wind, solar, and hydro—the news also signals the decline of already-struggling coal-fired generating plants across the U.S.
While the numbers reflect long-term trends, seasonal considerations also played a role. For example, as snow melts across the U.S. during the spring, hydro power generation reaches peak levels. Coal plants are typically taken offline during periods of low demand—like the spring snow melt—for maintenance and upgrades to ensure their smooth operation for the high-demand seasons of summer and winter.
And while renewables aren’t quite set to outperform coal on a year-round basis yet, they are fast becoming cheaper than coal as decades invested in revolutionizing renewable energy sources has resulted in inexpensive mass-manufactured solar panels and cheaper wind turbines.
Coal has been blasted as the most polluting energy source in use today, constituting the single biggest contributor to global warming while tainting the air we breathe and the water we drink with tons of toxic coal ash. Coal pollution is linked to four of the five leading causes of death in the United States— including cancer, heart disease, stroke, respiratory illness—and 36,000 U.S.residents die every year due to air pollution from coal-fired power plants.
In the meantime, coal is becoming far more expensive for the big utilities firms as aging coal plants reach the end of their lifespans, causing maintenance costs to skyrocket while stagnating coal costs fritter away at profit margins. Indeed, over the past decade, the costs of both coal and natural gas have largely stagnated.
And the trend is expected to continue as regions across the U.S. realize that the cost differential between coal, nuclear, and renewables, such as wind and solar, make the continued operation of nonrenewable plants unfeasible from a financial perspective. In fact, across the United States dozens of coal plants have been shuttered over the past several years while solar and wind power are seeing historic boom-times.
Nevertheless, renewable energy’s relative cheapness and cleanliness in terms of storage technology remain incapable of shouldering the weight of such a massive developed economy as exists in the United States. Yet as the costs of producing nuclear power, waste storage, and the production and storage of coal continue to rise and renewables continue to grow cheaper, it’s only a matter of time before cleaner energy sources displace conventional fossil-fuel based sources.
Even if renewables will only outpace coal for a few months this year, all signs are pointing to this becoming a trend that will only grow as time passes. We can expect that perhaps within our lifetimes, the necessity of fighting climate change along with the increasing attractiveness of renewable energy costs will ensure that coal-fired and natural gas power plants will fade into the history books.
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