Renewables Surpass Coal, But Natural Gas Still Dominates U.S. Power Generation

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PENNSYLVANIA STATE IMPACT – Renewables have overtaken coal and nuclear power for the first time, 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 show that wind, hydro, solar, biomass and geothermal combined accounted for 834 billion kilowatt hours, or about 21% of all generation in 2020. Natural gas is still the country’s main source of electricity, generating 1,617 kWh last year, or about 40% of electricity production in the United States.

Tim Lambert/WITF. A wind farm in the county of Somerset.

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

Wind remains the largest source of renewable energy in the United States and grew 14% in 2020. President Joe Biden has set a goal of 30,000 additional megawatts of offshore wind power by 2030. The 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 White House infrastructure deal included $73 billion for renewable transmission. A big stumbling block for renewables is getting electricity from the point of generation to areas of greatest consumption.

The money would create a “network deployment authority” to oversee research and development of resilient transmission systems. The White House said it would also fund “thousands of miles of resilient new 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 power to rebound 18% in 2021 as gas prices rise.

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

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


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