Renewables overtake coal, but natural gas still dominates electricity generation in the United States


Renewable energies for the first time overtook coal and nuclear, to become the second largest source of electricity in the United States behind natural gas.

The figures released last week by the Energy Information Administration shows that wind, hydropower, solar, biomass and geothermal energy combined accounted for 834 billion kilowatt-hours, or about 21% of all production in 2020. Natural gas is still the main source of electricity in the country, generating 1,617 kWh last year, or about 40% of US electricity production.

The change stems from an increase in renewable sources, but also a sharp drop in the use of coal, which fell 20% from 2019.

Wind remains the primary source of renewable energy in the United States and increased by 14% in 2020. President Joe Biden has set a target of an additional 30,000 megawatts of offshore wind power by 2030. New Jersey plans to become the East Coast’s hub for wind power distribution, and Governor Phil Murphy has set his own goal of 100% renewable energy by 2050.

The recent bipartisan infrastructure deal struck by the White House provided for $ 73 billion for the transport of renewable energy. A big stumbling block for renewables is getting electricity from the point of production to areas of greatest consumption.

The money would create a “network deployment authority” to oversee the research and development of resilient transmission systems. The White House said it would also fund “thousands of miles of new resilient transmission lines,” as well as new nuclear reactors, carbon capture and clean hydrogen technologies.

Coal has been in decline since 2007, largely replaced by cheaper natural gas. But the Energy Information Agency says it expects coal-fired electricity to rebound by as much as 18% in 2021 as gas prices rise.

The agency reports that renewables will continue to climb, forecasting a 7% increase in 2021.

Nuclear power is down 2% and is expected to continue declining as plants like the Oyster Creek plant in New Jersey retire. The state recently approved a grant to keep its other nuclear power plants afloat, including Salem and Hope Creek.

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This story is produced in partnership with Pennsylvania Impact State, a collaboration between The Allegheny Front, WPSU, WITF and WHYY to cover the Commonwealth’s energy economy.

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