Nice Time: Coal's Kung-Fu Is Old, And Now It Must Die
Some nice energy news from the New York Times Friday: We already knew that coal was a dying industry, despite all of Donald Trump's efforts to keep it going. Now, a new "short term energy outlook" report from the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicts that, for the first time ever, the USA will generate more of its electricity using renewable sources than coal this year. Coal has been trending down as a portion of the US energy mix, but the economic shutdown to reduce the spread of the coronavirus means the nation is using less electricity, and since coal is now among the costlier sources for electricity, utilities have been switching off their coal-fired generating stations first.
No, that's not us cheering on a deadly pandemic. But if the resulting economic downturn hastens the end of the dirtiest form of energy on the planet, that's good for everyone.
Let's throw out some numbers, shall we? The EIA estimates US coal use will fall by 25 percent this year, supplying just 19 percent of the country's total electricity. For the first time in history, that will put coal behind both nuclear energy and renewables (which include wind, solar, and hydroelectric, plus weirdo outliers like geothermal and biomass).
The Times says that through the first four and a half months of 2020,
America's fleet of wind turbines, solar panels and hydroelectric dams have produced more electricity than coal on 90 separate days — shattering last year's record of 38 days for the entire year. On May 1 in Texas, wind power alone supplied nearly three times as much electricity as coal did.
The biggest factor in coal's decline has been the availability of cheap natural gas, which releases far less carbon dioxide, but is ultimately unsustainable if we're to avoid the worst effects of climate change. The EIA estimates gas will hold steady this year at 38 percent of electricity sources.
The Times notes that since 2005, the decline of coal has helped reduce US CO2 emissions by 15 percent. The EIA report forecasts that for 2020, emissions will decrease by 11 percent, the result of a combination of the switch from coal and overall reduced energy demand due to the economic slowdown. That's a 70-year record, not that we should go patting ourselves on the back for a pandemic doing what energy policy should have. And EIA predicts that as the economy rebounds in 2021, CO2 emissions will be up by at least five percent, so please temper your applause.
The overall trend for coal, though, appears finally to be toward extinction, as the Times 'splains:
Large power companies, including Duke Energy in the Southeast and Xcel Energy in the Midwest, are currently planning to retire at least four dozen large coal plants by 2025, and no utility is currently planning to build a new coal facility.
"The grid is changing so much faster than anyone expected," said Daniel Cohan, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University. "A decade ago, I was teaching my students that coal was the 'baseload' source that runs all the time, and solar was something you might sprinkle in if you want to pay more. Now coal's been pushed to the margins and it's wind and solar that are the cheapest options."
Since coal power plants are being switched off as demand drops, that's likely to accelerate the permanent closure of coal-fired plants. As they run farther below capacity, keeping them open at all may just not be worth the cost. Now we just need to dump Trump so we can get some Green New Dealing going to boost the economy and get people good clean jobs that don't have severe respiratory conditions named after them.
The cost of renewables just keeps dropping as they're more widely adopted. Utilities that previously were hesitant to go with large wind or solar facilities, because what do you do at night or when the wind's not blowing, have added greater renewable capacity, keeping natural gas generating stations in reserve to meet demand as needed. And great big battery storage facilities are planned for sites in in Nevada and California.
The pandemic has slowed down adoption of renewable power, however:
For instance, Pacificorp, a major utility in the Northwest, said it was facing challenges in completing a large 503-megawatt wind farm under construction in Wyoming, though a spokesman said the company was trying to find "creative solutions" in order to meet a November deadline.
The IRS has at least suggested that it might be flexible in allowing wind and solar developers whose projects have been slowed by the pandemic to take tax subsidies even if they miss deadlines this year. Shhhhh, nobody tell Trump about that, OK?
The Times points out that the US is still behind Europe and the UK when it comes to shutting down coal plants; Britain "now goes for weeks at a time without using any coal power at all." But even the US of Coal is dragging its dirty old ass into something closer to where it needs to be:
"In some parts of the country, we're now seeing renewable penetration hit 60 or 70 percent on some days," said Nat Kreamer, chief executive of Advanced Energy Economy, a clean-energy business group, "and no one's screaming that they can't do that."
Thank you very much, and now we would like our unicorns and rainbows, too.
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Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.