While the United States’ coal industry has been for years losing ground to alternative energy sources, including shale and natural gas, renewables have surpassed the fossil fuel for the first time, official data shows.
According to the latest report by the Energy Information Administration (EIA), clean energy sources supplied more of the US’s electricity than coal in April this year than ever before.
The breakthrough reflects the declining cost of solar and wind and also heightened environmental concerns about coal.
Some of it is also because of seasonal issues, such as planned shut downs for some coal plants due to maintenance. In spring, demand for electricity is low and the season also tends to be a strong period for hydro and wind power.
Since peaking in 2008, US coal consumption has plunged 39% to the lowest level in 40 years, despite President Donald Trump’s promises to prop up the industry by revoking or lightening up environmental rules.
The country’s renewable energy sector proved to have slightly more installed capacity than coal, which means that US power plants were able produce more energy from clean sources than the fossil fuel in April, for the first time in history.
A Federal Energy Regulatory Commission report shows the total available installed generating capacity of coal stood at 257.48 gigawatts two months ago. Renewable energy — including not just solar and wind but also water, biomass and geothermal steam — narrowly overtook coal by climbing to 257.53 gigawatts of installed capacity that month.
Despite the numbers, renewables aren’t expected to overtake coal on an annual basis for several years.
Analysts at Global Risk Insights note that coal continues to be the US’s leading source of carbon emissions that contribute to climate change and the effects coal pollution are estimated to kill about 7,500 Americans every year.
The pace of the change, however, is picking up — it was only three years ago when coal was first surpassed by natural gas as the US’ main power source.