In April 2019, the US renewables sector generated more electricity than the country's coal power plants for the first time, according to analysis by the Institute for Energy Economics.
April 2019 looks set to have been a momentous month for the US energy industry, with the renewable sector projected to generate more electricity than coal for the first time ever.
The prediction was made earlier this week by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), which hailed the shift as the beginning of a "tipping point" which will see "renewable output begin outpacing coal more and more frequently."
"According to data published this month in the Energy Information Administration (EIA) Short-Term Energy Outlook, renewables may even trump coal through the month of May as well," IEEFA analyst Dennis Wamsted added in a recent report.
EIA estimates show renewable energy - classified as hydro, biomass, wind, solar and geothermal power - generating 2,322 and 2,271 thousand MWh/day in April and May respectively, topping coal's projected output of 1,997 and 2.239 thousand MWh/day over the same two months.
For the time being, Wamsted only expects to observe the switch during certain months with annual coal production continuing to outstrip renewables "for several years" to come. April's results are partly seasonal, with coal stations often closing during parts of the spring for maintenance, in preparation for demand spikes through the summer and winter.
However, Wamsted also draws a parallel with natural gas, which is currently the US's number one power source. The first instance of natural gas-fired generation exceeding coal's output occurred just three years ago, in April 2015. By January 2018, it had overtaken coal production altogether.
"On an annual basis, the two fuels each accounted for about 33 per cent of the electricity market in 2015," Wamsted writes. "By 2018, natural gas's share had climbed to 35 per cent while coal's had dropped to 27 per cent. The trends for both are expected to continue."
The report anticipates a continued decline for the US coal industry, despite vocal support from President Donald Trump. With a remaining capacity of 240GW, the coal industry's energy generation is at its lowest level since 1979, according to EIA figures.
According to the clean energy think tank Energy Innovation, the US has already entered what it terms the "coal cost crossover", where existing coal plants are increasingly more expensive than cleaner alternatives. It estimates that wind and solar could replace 74 per cent of the US coal fleet at an immediate saving to customers. By 2025, it projects this figure to rise to 86 per cent.
The tipping point for renewable energy may already have been reached in Texas, the IEEFA adds. Data from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) suggests wind and solar generation topped coal's output for the first quarter of 2019 - the first time this has happened on a quarterly basis.
"The shift in Texas will not end overnight, as the state's coal plants are used heavily during the hot summer months, but the gap is closing," Wamsted writes. "In 2018, solar and wind output totaled 78 per cent of coal's generation and, as the first-quarter data indicate, the race is narrowing."
It is this backdrop against which the upcoming presidential race is expected to ensure climate change and clean energy play a critical role. New polling this week revealed that climate change is the top issue Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents want to see candidates address with fully 82 per cent describing it as a "very important" issue. Meanwhile, a series of polls have revealed burgeoning support for clean energy, even among Republican voters.
Consequently, while President Trump continues to disparage attempts to curb emissions and question the science on climate change, his prospective challengers are lining up to burnish their green credentials.
Beto O'Rourke this week became the latest candidate to unveil plans for a sweeping decarbonisation programme, pledging to invest $5tr in new low carbon infrastructure as part of a plan to halve emissions by 2030 and turn the US into a net zero emission economy by mid-century.
With renewables providing further evidence they can play a central role in a cost effective, reliable, and decarbonised electricity system, hopes are growing that plenty more clean energy energy milestones are in the pipeline.
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