Environment Juan Cole

Renewables Outstrip Coal in US For First Time, With 50% of New Power Being Solar

Installation of solar PV panels – panels in place. Installation of solar PV panels – panels in place by David Hawgood, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

By Juan Cole / Informed Comment

Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – The Energy Information Agency of the US Department of Energy announced this week that for the first time in US history, renewable sources generated more electricity in 2022 than did coal. Renewables also outstripped nuclear power generation, for the second year in a row. In fact, renewables are even more productive of power than this report shows, since it only looks at utility-scale solar and leaves aside the electricity generated by rooftop solar panels.

As recently as 2010, coal generated over 1800 million megawatt hours of electricity whereas renewables contributed on the order of 400 million MWh. And in 2010, most of the renewable electricity generation came from hydroelectric plants, with almost nothing from solar. Not only did wind and solar jump ahead in 2022, but coal declined from 23% of electricity generation in the US to only 20% last year. Several coal-fired power plants were closed down,and many of those that continued to operate did so at a reduced schedule. Coal is the most carbon-intensive of the hydrocarbon fuels, spewing out enormous amounts of carbon dioxide when burned, so every coal plant that is retired is a huge win for us humans.

Data source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Electricity Data Browser

The incredible shrinking coal industry will get smaller yet this year, with coal and fossil gas plants expected to account for 98% of power plant retirements in 2023. Nearly 9 gigawatts of coal-fired electricity generation capacity will be mothballed.

In contrast, nearly 50% of new electricity generating facilities that opened in 2022 were solar. Some 17% of new capacity was fueled by wind turbines. Unfortunately, fossil gas was still in the mix, but only a fifth of new capacity came from that fuel.

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The progress of renewables since 2010 is incredible in such a short time, although it is not fast enough or of such a magnitude as to save us from the worst of the climate crisis. It is helpful to consider this transformation, achieved in twelve years, when contemplating the even more challenging changes we must institute by 2040 if we are to prevent the climate from going chaotic on us. It is an uphill, tough task, but the obstacles are not insuperable. Above all, they are not mainly technical but problems of knowledge, education and will. We have all the technology we need to green our planet.

Data source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Electricity Data Browser

Whereas hydroelectric generation has remained flat at about 6% of the total, wind went from a little over 100 million megawatt hours in 2010 to over 400 in 2022. In 2022, US wind power capacity was up to 141 gigawatts, from 133 MW the previous year. Utility-scale solar went from practically nothing to about 150 million megawatt hours, 2010-2022. Solar power capacity grew to 71 gigawatts in 2022 from 61 the previous year.

In the past 12 years, then, the big story has been a huge expansion of wind power. In the long run, however, solar is likely to dominate, as panels become cheaper and more efficient. Since without a megabattery solar is not generated at night, whereas wind often blows at night, especially out at sea, these two sources complement one another.

Texas was responsible for 21% of wind power in 2022, showing how red states also are going in for renewables in a big way. Iowa generated 10% of our nation’s wind power, and Oklahoma did 9%. An enormous new wind farm opened in Oklahoma.

Sunny California made 26% of US solar power last year, but Texas came in second at 16%. Guess which state was third? I was surprised. It was North Carolina, at 8%. There is so much solar power to be had in the deep South that clearly is not being exploited because of bad government policy. Why isn’t Florida in the top three? Because Republicans run Florida and most of them are in the back pocket of Big Oil.

Still, solar will likely get noticeably cheaper in 2023. The price of silicon is expected to fall, and President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act gives substantial tax credits for solar installations. You ain’t seen nothin’ yet (to the tune of the Bachman Turner Overdrive song, with lots of cowbell).

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Juan Cole

Juan Cole is a public intellectual, prominent blogger and essayist, and the Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan.

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