The cooling towers at the Brayton Point coal-fired power plant crumble during a controlled implosion in April 2019 (Craig F. Walker/Boston Globe via Getty Images)

In Other News, Renewables Just Passed Coal on the Energy Capacity Racetrack

And their lead is expected only to widen.

June 21, 2019

Carrying out the wishes of President Trump, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency formally announced this week that it would be killing the Clean Power Plan, President Obama’s sweeping rule intended to cut carbon pollution by limiting emissions from coal-fired power plants. In its place, it rolled out a weak-tea, coal-friendly substitute known as the Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule. Under the new rule, states are no longer responsible for reducing their CO2 emissions 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Instead, it lays out a plan for a reduction of 11 million tons of power-sector emissions by that same year. Do the math and this translates to emissions cuts of somewhere between 0.7 percent and 1.5 percent.

The ignominious launch of the ACE is undoubtedly the biggest climate news of the week. But there’s another story that’s gotten far less attention, even though it provides a comforting counterpoint to the dissonance coming out of the White House. According to a just-published report by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), America quietly passed a clean energy milestone in April. For the first time in history, renewable energy capacity was greater than the capacity of coal. To put it another way, renewables are now capable of generating more electricity than coal is.

Granted, it’s a real squeaker: As of April, renewables accounted for 21.56 percent of total U.S. generating capacity and coal accounted for 21.55 percent. But in that one-hundredth of a point difference is confirmation of the sweetest, most satisfying sort. What clean energy advocates have long said was bound to happen has finally happened. Renewable energy is no longer just “catching up” to coal. It’s now—officially—beating it.

What’s more, if trends continue, this lead is only going to widen over time. Renewables’ share of generating capacity is growing at a rate of about one percentage point annually, while coal consumption is in freefall: Right now, Americans are relying on coal for less of our electricity than we have in 40 years. By 2022, it’s estimated that renewables will account for a full quarter of our nation’s total available power supply.

The McFadden Ridge Wind Energy Project in Carbon County, Wyoming

Nick Cote for NRDC

It’s against this backdrop that Trump’s EPA, currently led by the former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, is making its last-ditch effort to save the moribund coal industry at the expense of clean air, public health, and the global climate. It’s an effort as futile as it is dangerous. Take it from Nick Mullins, a fifth-generation coal miner from Virginia who has become a vocal critic of the industry and a champion of increased regulation, including emissions protections. In a New York Times op-ed video posted last year, he accused the administration of trafficking in “false promises that are only going to line the pockets of coal executives while delaying the inevitable.”

If Trump and Wheeler are still having difficulty understanding what “the inevitable” looks like, they might want to turn their attention to another new report that paints a very clear picture. The authors of “Benchmarking Air Emissions of the 100 Largest Electric Power Producers in the United States” have been compiling and analyzing energy generation and emissions data since 1997. They found that 2017 marked the first year that zero-carbon resources accounted for more electricity generation than either coal or natural gas. The zero-carbon category includes nuclear energy in addition to renewables, and nuclear certainly played a large part in this achievement, accounting for more than 56 percent of zero-carbon generation in 2017. But renewable and hydroelectric sources together made up more than 43 percent of it. And it’s promising to see that these greener forms of energy are aggressively on the rise, while nuclear energy (which carries environmental, safety, and economic risks) is on the decline.

But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that our president appreciates the monumental change that’s taking place. This is, after all, the same man who has suggested that increasing our country’s reliance on wind energy could mean that Americans wouldn’t be able to watch television on evenings when the wind isn’t blowing, and that the noise from windmills causes cancer.

Data, science, and statistics don’t matter to him. But they matter to plenty of other people—including, it should be noted, economists, utility managers, business leaders, lawmakers, and average citizens who are concerned about climate change and air pollution. We’ve just crossed a major threshold: Renewables have now surpassed coal in their capacity to provide us with electricity. It would be terrific if the president supported this momentum. But even if he doesn’t, it won’t change the trajectory that we’re on. Clean energy is the future; coal is the past.

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onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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