Future Tense

For the First Time, Renewables Have the Capacity to Generate More Power Than Coal

Wind turbines rotate at a wind farm in on a hill in California
Wind turbines operate at a wind farm in Whitewater, California. Mario Tama/Getty Images

When then-candidate Donald Trump visited West Virginia in May 2016, he vowed to put miners in coal country back to work. “[Y]ou’re going to be so proud of your president,” Trump told a crowd gathered at a civic center in Charleston, West Virginia.

The reality is that coal dominance of the U.S. energy sector ended a long time ago—more than 60 years ago, to be exact, when it was surpassed by natural gas. Now a new report suggests cheaper and more abundant renewable energy is knocking coal down a peg, too.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s most recent numbers found that in April, renewable energy—including wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, and hydroelectric—surpassed coal in energy generating capacity for the first time in American history. That means that for the first time ever, clean energy could produce more power than coal.

Trends in the FERC’s monthly reports and other similar reports suggest renewable energy capacity and production are going nowhere but up—and coal is going nowhere but down. That decline is largely driven by the affordability of natural gas and the declining costs of building clean energy projects. This year, the percentage of total capacity available from coal has declined down to 21.55 percent, from 22.73 percent in April 2018.

Meanwhile, renewables continue to grow. With new renewable projects coming online, total generating capacity from renewable energy facilities increased to 21.56 percent of all available installed electrical capacity in the U.S. That’s just a hair more than coal’s 21.55 percent, but it’s still something. While generating capacity is not the same as actual energy generation (not all generating capacity is used all the time), it is a signal that energy sector is moving increasingly into renewables.

That doesn’t mean clean energy is on the verge of overtaking the behemoth of natural gas in total capacity or generation. Natural gas still makes up about 44 percent of energy capacity. But it does mean that wind and solar are growing faster than any other source—including natural gas. There are expected to be 2,510 new solar power units and 543 new wind units added by 2022.

Not all of them will be built, but with those new units, the FERC expects wind and solar to make up at least than 54 percent of newly added capacity by 2022.

An analysis of the FERC report by the Sun Day Campaign, a nonprofit group researching sustainable energy, found that total generating capacity from more traditional fuels like natural gas, coal, oil, and nuclear could actually decline by 2022 as plant retirements exceed new projects. If the ERC’s projections remain accurate, that means that renewable sources of energy could provide one-quarter of the power in the U.S. by that same year, according to the Sun Day Campaign. A major push for clean energy investment between now and then could tip the scales even more.

Twenty-five percent clean-energy production is not where most scientists and climate activists say the country needs to be to avoid the worst effects of climate change. But at least the ball is rolling.

Correction, June 12, 2019: This piece originally misidentified the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission as the Energy Regulatory Commission.