America's Renewables Take Hold as the Coal Industry Enters a Potentially Permanent Downward Spiral

Renewable energy in the U.S. is set to generate more electricity than the coal industry this year, with the fossil fuel potentially on a downward trend from which it may "never recover."

A report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) published earlier this month forecast an 11 percent growth in electricity from renewables over 2020, while coal generation was predicted to fall by 25 percent. This follows the general movement away from coal and towards renewables over recent years, as the latter becomes cheaper and more reliable. More recently, the drop in demand for coal has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

Daniel Cohan, from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Rice University in Houston, told Forbes: "The pandemic is accelerating some of the trends underway. The virus is cutting into electricity demand: some offices are closed. Some industrial output is slowing down. There is less demand as a result and coal is the victim. It is a game of musical chairs and coal will be left without a chair."

energy use in USA
Electricity generated in the U.S. from different sources on 17 May, 2020. EIA

The EIA report said the "record decline" in coal consumption was because of restrictions placed on businesses and travel, along with the economic impact of the pandemic. Most states across the country introduced restrictions to try to curb the spread of the virus. The EIA says it expects CO2 emissions to fall in 2020 by 11 percent, equivalent to 572 million metric tons. It expects this to increase by 5 percent in 2021 as COVID-19 restrictions are eased and the economy recovers.

Experts have said coal industry is unlikely to rebound completely. Richard Cochrane, Associate Professor in Renewable Energy at the U.K.'s University of Exeter, said the pattern being seen in the U.S. is mirrored by other countries. "In many countries renewables are now a cheaper way to produce electricity than using fossil fuels, especially compared to fuels like coal which can cost two or three times as much as producing electricity from natural gas," he told Newsweek in an email.

Energy outlook from the EIA published May. EIA

He said that in the U.K., energy from onshore wind is now cheaper than electricity generated by gas. "What we will see is that coal use for electricity production will reduce simply due to the commercial proposition and as less and less coal is used to make electricity, the cost per kWh of electricity produced will go up, further exaggerating the difference between the coal and renewable energy options." As more renewables are manufactured, the cost will come down "quite dramatically," and the proportion of energy coming from these sources will increase across the world.

President Donald Trump previously said he hoped to revive the coal sector. However the economics of this, Cochrane said, are "simply not viable. Despite his pledges, the business case does not stack up and we have not seen growth in the sector that was alluded to."

He continued: "This is great news for our impact on climate change as the carbon footprint of energy from wind or solar is very low and although there are some emissions from the manufacturing and installation of the technologies, these emissions are offset very quickly once the systems are up and running."

Michael E. Mann, Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science at Penn State, told Newsweek the latest report from the EIA was good news. I do think that coal—and ultimately, all fossil fuels—are in a death spiral, as renewables become more cost-competitive and problems like storage and intermittency are being solved," he said in an email. "That makes them even more vulnerable to the vagaries of market fluctuations and shocks due to things like the current pandemic."

Investment in renewables, however, is increasing. Earlier this month, the Trump administration approved what will become the largest solar energy facility in the U.S. The Gemini Solar Project, the Department of the Interior said, will be built in Nevada, around 30 miles from Las Vegas. It will cover an area over 7,000 acres and, once completed, will offset the greenhouse gas emissions of 83,000 cars every year.

This announcement followed a report from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEFA) that found renewables produced more electricity than coal plants every day in April.

Speaking to the Guardian, Rob Jackson, chair of the Global Carbon Project, said lower natural gas prices along with cheaper solar and wind power mean the coal industry may be "permanently undercut." He told the newspaper: "Covid-19 will slash coal emissions so much this year that the industry will never recover, even with a continued build-out in India and elsewhere."

Richard Allan, professor of Climate Science at the University of Reading, U.K., said the decline in coal had started before the pandemic, with global emissions down around one percent in 2019. He said that while coronavirus-related restrictions may lead to even lower emissions this year, it would not be enough to keep global warming beneath 2 degrees Celsius—the benchmark it is thought would limit catastrophic climate change.

"There is an opportunity to 'build back better' in the recovery from the pandemic with focus on moving from coal and other fossil fuel use to renewables," he told Newsweek in an email. "The reduced economic activity due to the ongoing pandemic is...not expected to noticeably reduce the warming of climate, though could potentially act as a catalyst in galvanising the substantive and rapid move away from fossil fuels required to limit dangerous climate change."

Mann also said the use of coal, oil and natural gas are unlikely to end soon enough to avert catastrophic warming without moving towards renewables at a far faster pace. "That will require some combination of subsidies and incentives and carbon pricing, i.e. policies that favor climate action," he said.

This article has been updated to include quotes from Michael E. Mann.

Stock image of coal plant. The U.S. is expected to generate more electricity from renewables than coal this year. iStock