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Renewables are displacing coal generation as Covid-19 eats at demand

image credit: NREL's National Wind Technology Center in Colorado. Credit: David Wagman

Electricity generated by renewable sources like solar, wind and hydro has exceeded coal-fired power in the United States for a record 40 straight days, according to a report based on U.S. government data released on Monday.

According to research produced by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), the boost for renewables is due to a seasonal increase in low-cost solar and hydro power generation, along with a slump in electricity demand caused by coronavirus-related stay-at-home orders. Coal tends to be the first power source to be cut by utilities when demand falls because subsidized renewable sources are cheaper to operate and often backed by state clean-energy mandates.

The IEEFA researech drew on preliminary data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration going back to late March.

Every day between March 25 and May 3, solar, wind and hydro plants together produced more electricity than the nation’s coal-fired plants, and accounted for about one fifth of the grid’s power, IEEFA said. The longest back-to-back stretch previously was nine days in 2019. In total in 2019, renewables beat coal on 38 days, IEEFA said.

IEEFA added it is possible that renewable energy in the United States could exceed coal on an annual basis for the first time this year, a year earlier than it initially forecast, if power consumption trends caused by the health crisis continue.

The pandemic and global lockdown have cratered demand for electricity around the world. The drop is the equivalent of losing the entire energy demand of India, the world’s third-largest energy consumer.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the Covid-19 pandemic represents the “biggest shock to the global energy system in more than seven decades.” It said the drop in demand this year is on track to to dwarf the impact of the 2008 financial crisis.

The plunge in demand for nearly all major fuels is “staggering,” especially for coal, oil and gas. “Only renewables are holding up during the previously unheard-of slump in electricity use,” said Dr Fatih Birol, the IEA executive director. He said that the energy industry that emerges from the crisis will be “significantly different from the one that came before.”

The silver linings, according to IEA, are that global emissions are expected to fall this year by a record 8% and renewable energy resources are moving past fossil fuels as a source of power generation.

DW Keefer's picture

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