EIA: Renewables Surpass Coal Generation for First Time

The energy mix in the United States is changing. A report by the Energy Information Administration (EIA) illustrates this, indicating that renewable electricity generation exceeded coal-fired generation for the first time on record in 2020.

It is important to note that renewable energy in the United States is primarily comprised of solar photovoltaic (PV) and wind power, but does not include nuclear power generation. According to the report, both wind and solar generation grew from 2019 to 2020, expanding renewables’ share of the domestic energy mix to 21 percent.

Wind is still the primary source of renewable energy, rising 14 percent between 2019 and 2020, generating 337,509 million kWh of electricity in 2020. Solar, which is divided between utility-scale solar generation and small-scale generation, also grew year-over-year. Utility-level solar is defined by the EIA as solar projects with output greater than 1 megawatt of power, while small-scale solar consists of consumer-level solar generation which has the capability to feed excess energy back into the grid, also known as distributed generation. From 2019 to 2020, utility-level solar generation increased by 26 percent, generating 90,890 million kWh. Small-scale solar increased by 19 percent, generating 41,740 million kWh in the same timeframe.

As renewables grow, coal continues to fall from past prominence, making up just 19 percent of the energy mix in 2020. Year-over-year comparisons of coal-fired generation show that the fossil fuel’s use declined by 20 percent in 2020 from 2019’s levels. Nuclear followed suit, though by a much smaller percentage, falling by just 2 percent, making up 20 percent of the total energy mix. However, the EIA forecasts that coal will make a resurgence in 2021, and will likely take back the ground made by renewables and surpass them in the energy mix again.

It is also important to note that although renewables have overtaken coal and nuclear, all three sources are within 2 percent of each other in the total mix. When combined, the three sources make up approximately 60 percent of total generation. The other 40 percent is generated by natural gas, which has been on a steady rise since 1990, with significant jumps in generation happening in the mid-2000s.

Federal and state policies, such as President Joe Biden’s commitment to facilitating growth in the green energy sector, and Pennsylvania’s decision to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) will certainly help to grow the use of renewables for electricity generation, but it remains to be seen if coal use globally will make up for the reduced amount being consumed in the U.S.

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