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U.S. Electricity Is Shifting, But Not Exactly Going Green

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The amount of electricity generated by renewable energy sources in the U.S. topped the amount generated by coal for the first time in April, the U.S. Energy Information Administration announced today, by a margin of 68.5 gigawatt-hours to 60.1.

Renewables Beat Coal

U.S. monthly net electricity generation by source, in gigawatt-hours
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration
*Hydroelectric, wind, solar, geothermal and biomass
The EIA’s renewables total includes geothermal and biomass, which may not exactly be the first things that come to mind when one contemplates the rise of renewable energy. But sum up just the big three of hydroelectric, wind and solar, and they handily beat coal in April, too.
This is all a very big deal, another landmark on the way to a future in which, according to a forecast this month from BloombergNEF, half the world’s electricity will be generated by renewables in 2050. But I cannot resist pointing out that we in the U.S. are not nearly as far along in that transition as the above chart makes it look. For one thing, as Bloomberg’s Chris Martin wrote in his report on the new EIA data: “One of the main reasons coal-fired power plants produced so little in April was because some were down for routine, spring maintenance.” And over the past decade, abundant natural gas has played a bigger role than the rise of renewables in pushing coal aside. Here’s another version of the above data, smoothed by using 12-month totals, with natural gas thrown in:

Natural Gas Beats Coal

U.S. net electricity generation by source, in gigawatt-hours, trailing 12 months
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration
Divide all power sources in the U.S. by fossil fuels and non-fossil-fuels, and the picture changes yet again. Yes, non-fossil-fuels have gained on the fossils over the past decade, but they have a long way to go:

Fossil Fuels Still Rule

U.S. net electricity generation by source, in gigawatt-hours, trailing 12 months
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration
I included the EIA’s category of “other energy sources” under fossil fuels because I guessed that most of those sources (they include “purchased steam,” “waste heat not directly attributed to a fuel source” and “tire-derived fuels”) had a big fossil-fuel component, but they’re such a small part of electricity generation that it doesn’t make a big difference one way or the other.
One troubling note in the above chart is that non-fossil-fuels electricity generation has actually fallen a bit lately, mainly due to declines in nuclear generation late in 2018. For full-year 2018, nuclear power plants in the U.S. generated more electricity than they ever have before, but with New Jersey’s Oyster Creek Generating Station shutting down last September, more shutdowns of aging reactors in the offing, and few new reactors coming online, the EIA projects that nuclear generation will fall 17% by 2025. In other words, renewables growth is going to have to speed up to keep the fossil-fuel share of U.S. electricity generation — and the concomitant emissions of greenhouse gases — from rising.
Burning natural gas generates a lot less carbon dioxide than burning coal, but natural gas (methane) itself is also a greenhouse gas, and atmospheric methane levels have been rising fast.
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