Energy Economy

Coal-Fired Electricity Generation Falls Behind Renewables 

Coal-fired power plants generated more than 60 million megawatt-hours (MWh) of electricity in April, a drop of 18.1% compared with April 2018. Renewables, including conventional hydropower, generated more than 65 million MWh in the month, the first time that renewables have generated more electricity than coal.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) published the data on Wednesday, and it follows a report from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) from earlier this month noting that electricity generation capacity from renewables also surpassed coal capacity in April.

Electricity from renewable sources posted a 23% share of all electricity generated in April compared to a 20% share from coal-fired generation. Natural gas posted the largest share by far, more than a third of total April generation of more than 295 million MWh.

Wind generation posted a monthly record of 30.2 million MWh in April, while utility-scale solar generation totaled nearly 7 million MWh, short of the record-high 7.8 million MWh posted in June of last year. Wind power, which trailed hydropower generation in April 2018, exceeded hydropower by nearly 5 million MWh this past April.

The EIA noted that since 2015 some 47 million megawatts (MW) of coal-fired generation has been retired and that virtually no new coal-fired generation has come online in that time. The agency expects another 4.1 million MW to be retired this year.

Because coal is expected to provide more generation in the second half of the year, the EIA expects full-year 2019 and 2020 coal-fired generation to top generation from renewables. The agency also expects renewable generation to surpass nuclear power next year.

As we noted in our story on the FERC’s capacity report, the Trump administration’s continued support for coal makes lots of noise but little difference. Economics drives the switch to natural gas and, ultimately, to renewables, not regulation and wishful thinking. The levelized cost of wind and solar generation is expected to fall below the cost of gas-fired generation by 2023.

Coal got a small boost last week when the Trump administration repealed the Obama-era Clean Power Plan. However, that action won’t change the economics of electricity generation.