Culture

Renewable energy is predicted to outproduce coal for the first time ever

This year the U.S. is on track to generate more energy from renewable sources than from coal thanks to COVID-19.

Shutterstock

There’s finally a reason to thank the novel coronavirus: it’s fighting climate change. For the first time ever, the United States is predicted to produce more electricity from renewable sources than from coal this year, thanks mostly to the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A new Short-Term Energy Outlook Report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) shows that that stay-at-home orders, reduced travel, and massive disruptions to the industrial sector have completely overhauled the ways we use and produce energy. The report estimates that coal consumption in the U.S. will fall by nearly 25 percent this year and that renewable sources such as solar, wind, geothermal, hydroelectric, and biomass power will produce more electricity than coal in 2020.

Who knew all it would take to reduce the country’s carbon footprint was a soul-crushing pandemic? No matter the root cause, this is huge progress for the U.S., and it’s likely to change the way we produce energy even after the virus has released us from its grip.

Turns out staying home helps — It’s difficult to overstate just how monumental not traveling has been for carbon emissions. Last month Inverse reported satellite imagery of Europe showed a 45-50% drop in air pollution. Here in the U.S., the EIA predicts that, because of restricted travel and stunted economic growth, carbon dioxide emissions will decrease by 11 percent this year. Since 2005, the U.S. has only been able to decrease its carbon dioxide emissions by 15 percent.

This year alone we’re on track to decrease our carbon footprint by almost as much as we’ve done in the last 15 years combined. To put that jump further in perspective, last year’s decrease was just 2.8 percent. The pandemic is pushing coal further from our lives than ever before. That alone is something to celebrate.

Renewable energy is cheaper than ever — One of the main reasons renewable energy is on the rise is its declining price. The costs associated with building and maintaining solar energy production technology have dropped more than 80 percent in the past decade; large wind farms now cost more than 40 percent less than they did 10 years ago.

Since the beginning of the year, the EIA says, America’s renewable energy sources have produced more electricity than coal on 90 separate days. By comparison, in the whole of 2019 there were only 38 days like that. Overall, coal plants are expected to provide just 19 percent of the country’s electricity this year.

Coal isn’t dead just yet — We’re doing well at reducing our nationwide carbon footprint right now, but the work’s not done yet. Coal plants are still foundational in the country’s electricity production efforts, and the Trump administration is doing pretty much everything in its power to keep the coal industry afloat. The EIA forecasts as much as a 5 percent increase next year as stay-at-home orders are lifted and the United States awakens from its pandemic slumber.

The immense rise of renewable energy and the continued decline of coal in the U.S. is a very good sign indeed. Now the real trick will be sticking with that momentum after the quarantine is over.