Wind and solar power have surpassed coal in electricity generation for the first time in the United States; Fresh federal data from the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) reveals that wind and solar sources collectively produced 252 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity in the first five months of 2023, exceeding coal’s production of 249 TWh. This significant milestone signifies a notable shift where renewable energy triumphs over coal, excluding hydroelectric power.

This accomplishment stems from the ongoing decline in coal usage nationwide, with decommissioned coal plants being replaced by renewable energy and natural gas alternatives. At its peak in 2007, coal accounted for nearly half of the country’s energy production.

(Image: “Wild Horse Wind Farm” by aa7ae)

According to Chris Higginbotham, the EIA spokesperson, official estimates indicate that wind and solar generation surpassed coal in January, February, and March, and real-time data suggests this trend continued through April and May.

This progress follows a brief resurgence in coal demand driven by the Ukraine conflict and the post-pandemic economic recovery, which caused natural gas prices to rise. However, factors such as a mild winter, increased natural gas production, and slower global economic growth have led to a decline in gas prices and subsequently reduced the demand for coal, as reported by the World Bank.

Marking a shift toward sustainable energy

Since the beginning of 2022, around 14 gigawatts of coal capacity have been decommissioned in the US, equivalent to approximately 7% of the total coal fleet. As a result, carbon emissions from fossil fuels in the US have decreased by 5.6% since April 2022, according to the emissions tracker Carbon Monitor.

This shift highlights the country’s commitment to transitioning to more environmentally sustainable energy sources and the widespread closure of coal plants nationwide. Joe DeCarolis, the EIA administrator, predicted that this year the US will generate the least electricity from coal compared to any other year in the 21st century. He also emphasized that as electricity providers increasingly rely on renewable sources, coal generation will continue to decline over the next 18 months.

Fossil fuels still maintain their dominance

Fossil fuels still maintain their dominance in the US power generation landscape, with natural gas remaining the primary source, accounting for approximately 39% of electricity in 2022. Projections indicate a decrease to 38% this year and 37% in 2024.

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