Renewables Catching up with Coal in US

March 10, 2020

Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis:

The unthinkable occurred in the U.S. last month: In the dead of winter, renewable energy (utility-scale solar, wind and hydropower) generated more electricity than did coal plants.

This has never happened before.

Specifically, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA’s) new hourly electric grid monitor, renewables generated 56,981,597 megawatt-hours of electricity during February while coal produced 54,733,731 MWh.

The data comes with a few caveats. EIA notes that the numbers are not final (there is a two-month lag until numbers are confirmed in the Administration’s Electric Power Monthly) and that the new web-based resource is still undergoing beta testing. Still, the likelihood that renewable generation outperformed coal during the winter, historically a high-demand season for coal-fired generators, is a clear sign of the rapid transition that is reshaping the U.S. electricity sector.

The first time renewables outproduced coal, last April, was a landmark month (see: April is shaping up to be momentous in transition from coal to renewables). February 2020’s results are, if anything, even more important given the time of the year and some of the underlying data. As we noted at the time, the April 2019 results were somewhat influenced by the industry practice of taking coal plants offline during lower-demand seasons (spring and fall) to perform maintenance and upgrades in preparation for higher energy demand during the summer and winter months.

Even more interesting is comparing the daily figures of coal generation last April with this February’s results. February logged 11 days when coal-fired generation totaled less than 1.8 million megawatt-hours (MWh); last April witnessed only five such days. At the other extreme, April 2019 marked 13 days when coal-fired generation topped 2 million MWh; February 2020  recorded only eight. Most tellingly, for the month as a whole, coal generated an average of 1.98 million MWh daily last April; while this February the daily average was just 1.88 million MWh. All of this EIA data can be found here.

13 Responses to “Renewables Catching up with Coal in US”

  1. pendantry Says:

    Just to quibble:

    That graph doesn’t show renewables ‘catching up to coal’. Renewables are showing as a flat trend, and coal is decreasing (which is good). But, assuming that USAns aren’t cutting back on their energy usage*, something else, not shown on the graph, must be making up the difference. (Is it ‘natural’ (sic) gas, perhaps?)

    *chance would be a fine thing

    • grindupbaker Says:

      Just to quibble to a ludicrous degree:
      “Renewables are showing as a flat trend”.
      To my eye balls that plot shows a least-squares error fit trend of renewables increasing by +1.1% / year 2017-01 to 2020-01. But I’m as blind as a bat and my eye glasses sit on the tip of my man-sized nose so get some computer software and don’t take the +1.1% / year from me. With massive double-irony I wrote least-squares error fit computer program in 1970 in IBM Assembler & Fortran IV-E for geophysical time series correction for North Sea oil/gas exploration (so the enemy and the year when it all started).

      • grindupbaker Says:

        Irony being I’ve no trend fit program for this computer and reduced to sad eye balling for 7 years with almost-legally-blind eyes for every damn ice, heat & temperature trend.

  2. terrydonte Says:

    Natural gas is cheaper than coal so coal use is falling off. Renewable s cannot furnish power 24/7 so will not be baseline until that is possible.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      There’s a deal in the making between utility grids in the US Northeast and Canadian hydropower: During high solar and wind production, excess gets shunted to Canada and the hydro capacity is not drained. When solar and wind are insufficient for the US Northeast, they get back hydropower.

      This is effectively how the Michigan Ludington Pumped Storage Plant buffers power: It uses cheap excess solar/wind to fill the reservoir, and lowers the reservoir when solar and wind are low production.

      • grindupbaker Says:

        “Canadian hydropower”. hey that’s my team:
        Ontario 2013 electricity production and conservation by source
        90.8 56% Nuclear
        35.5 22% Hydro
        16.6 10% Gas
        8.6 5% Conserve
        5.4 3% Wind
        3.0 2% Coal
        2.0 1% Bioenergy
        1.0 1% Solar PV
        163 100% Total
        Total 18,607 gW (They say 34 Gw is the available maximum)
        1.37 kW / person

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      Renewable s cannot furnish power 24/7 so will not be baseline until that is possible.

      Wow, it’s as if you’ve never heard of storage to time-shift the energy.

      • jfon Says:

        Can you provide any examples where that has happened, at a scale beyond boutique level ? The ‘ world’s largest battery ‘ has enough storage to run one of Australia’s smallest states for a few minutes, but is really used for voltage regulation ( something not needed when most of the power is from big, fast-spinning generators like hydro, fossil, or nuclear. )

        • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

          Can you provide any examples where that has happened, at a scale beyond boutique level ?

          No, but there is serious money chasing storage solutions (including a lot of failed investments, as with any gold rush).

          Just as there was a lag in data storage tech* following the increase in processing power, the practical need for storage is only now significantly driving ($$) the research and tech startups to address that problem.

          I haven’t looked at the numbers, but I’d bet good money that the number of engineering and research graduates for power and storage tech has been growing steadily for a decade.

          ~1990 promotion for a company offering storage devices that could hold over a terabyte: “MIPS, MIPS, MIPS. What are you going to do with the data?”

        • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

          BTW, electric utilities have been implementing local time-shifting programs (usually by time-shifting consumption) for many decades now. During seasons of peak use, as with peak A/C use on hot summer afternoons), utilities arranged with major industries and office buildings to store cooling potential by making ice overnight.

  3. Renewable plus storage can provide power 24/7 – stop lying to yourself


    Renewables are starting to climb the ladder though; imagine how much faster they’d take over if had the political will to really support them.

  5. J4Zonian Says:

    The Myth of Energy Storage vs. Baseload Amory Lovins July 19, 2014

    Old ”baseload” is the problem.

    Rick Perry’s attack on renewables through manipulated science
    Several Democratic senators called the request for the grid reliability study “a thinly disguised attempt to promote less economic electric generation technologies, such as coal and nuclear, at the expense of cost-competitive wind and solar power.”

    National Grid CEO: Large Power Stations For Baseload Power Is Outdated

    Base Load Power Is A Myth Used For Defending The Fossil Fuel Industry

    Renewables Become New Baseload For Power In South Australia

    ”The loss of coal plants has not diminished grid reliability; in fact, the grid is more reliable than ever. Reliability can be improved further through smart planning and a portfolio of flexible resources.” David Roberts

    Coal, gas, and long transmission failed during polar vortex, Harvey, etc. Renewables provided. So says the Perry study.
    Article also has a list for more reading—7

    Perry’s NOPR Dead

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