Renewables Pass Coal in U.S. Power Generation

But Is It Soon Enough to Ward Off the Worst Effects of Climate Change?

America reached an historic – if largely unheralded – milestone in 2022.  For the first time, U.S. power generation from renewable resources, mostly wind and solar power, surpassed power from coal-fired generation, according to statistics kept by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.  A year earlier, renewables surpassed nuclear power for the first time in total power generated for the U.S. grid.

There’s No Turning Back Now!

This important milestone marks the crossing of an energy Rubicon – away from reliance on traditional carbon and nuclear fuels and into renewable fuels – and there’s no turning back now!  Technology and production gains in the last decade have reduced the levelized costs of wind and solar power generation by 70% and 90%, respectively, making these carbon-free options the cheapest sources of new electricity across most of the country.   

Natural gas still sits atop the nation’s power supply, however, providing 39% of total U.S. electricity production in 2022.  Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February, though, steep natural gas price spikes have rippled through the U.S. wholesale power generation market, sending consumer electricity rates soaring by as much as 50% in parts of New England.  

Now, the Biden administration’s green energy plan – headlined by the Inflation Reduction Act passed by Congress last summer – aims to end the nation’s reliance on natural gas for power production, completing a transition to carbon-free generating fuels by 2035.  

A similar energy story is playing out internationally.  If governments follow through on their national commitments to reduce fossil-energy emissions associated with global warming, renewable fuels will account for 80% of all new power generation by 2030, according to the latest energy outlook from the International Energy Agency.  And, by 2040, power generation from coal will shrink to  less than 20% of the global energy supply for the first time since the start of the Industrial Revolution, the IEA predicts.

IEA Executive Director Faith Birol remarked: “I see solar becoming the new king of the world’s electricity markets.  Based on today’s policy settings, it’s on track to set new records for deployment every year after 2022.”  

Now, the Bad News

Despite this positive and seemingly irrevocable turn in clean energy development, it still may not be enough to defuse the long-term threat posed by global warming, according to the latest scientific assessment issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – its sixth major report issued since 1990.

While there has been some progress in curbing global greenhouse gas emissions – the annual growth rate has fallen from an average of 2.1% per year between 2000 and 2009 to just 1.3% per year between 2010 and 2019 – the atmospheric concentration of these heat-trapping gases is still on the rise.  In 2019, they grew to a record 59 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e) — approximately 12% higher than in 2010 and 54% greater than in 1990, when the IPCC issued its first climate assessment.

Now, even if all countries achieve their climate pledges (also known as nationally determined contributions or NDCs), they would only reduce global GHG emissions by just 7% below 2019 levels by 2030, according to new research by the World Resources Institute, which relies on the IPCC’s  latest climate and energy scenarios.  By comparison, limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C (2.7° degrees F) by 2030 would require a much deeper 43% cut in GHG emissions, according to this scenario analysis. 

Any further delay in curbing global GHG emissions will put future climate goals in serious jeopardy.  As things stand now, IPCC emission pathways limiting global warming to 1.5° C – with no or limited overshoot – would allow for a net increase of only 510 GtCO2 to be emitted before the nation reaches a net-zero carbon emissions status by the early 2050s.  Yet future carbon dioxide emissions from existing and planned fossil fuel infrastructure alone could blow by this limit by a whopping 340 GtCO2, reaching 850 GtCO2, bringing about a major overshoot of the world’s carbon reduction goals.

Carbon dioxide emissions from existing and planned fossil fuels put 1.5 degrees C out of reach

To stay on track with a 1.5° C global warming limit, the WRI analysis concludes that global use of coal would need to fall by 95% by 2050, oil use would need to decline by about 60%, and gas by about 45%.  This forecast also assumes that significant carbon abatement technologies would be deployed over the next two decades, which remain economically unviable in most commercial applications today. 

Getting Too Hot to Handle?

Even the current global temperature rise of 1.1 degrees C (2° F) is causing changes to the global climate system that are unparalleled in recent human history.  According to the IPCC, these climate changes run the gamut from more extreme weather events to rising sea levels to rapidly disappearing glaciers, coral reefs and sea ice.  

In addition, the IPCC finds that for every 0.5° C (0.9° F) of incremental warming, there will be clearly discernible increases in the frequency and severity of future heat waves, extreme rainfall events and regional droughts.  

For example, heatwaves that once arose once every 10 years on average in a climate with little human influence will likely occur 4.1 times more frequently with 1.5° C of global warming, 5.6 times with 2° C (3.6° F) of warming, and 9.4 times with 4° C (7.2° F), according to the IPCC. 

In addition, should global warming reach between 2° C and 3° C (5.4° F) later this century, the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets could melt almost completely and irreversibly over many thousands of years.  The resulting sea level rise of several meters would inundate many coastal cities and turn hundreds of millions of urban residents into climate refugees.

Even the 1.5° C global warming limit is not a safe goal for many people living around the globe.  At this limited level of warming, the IPCC forecasts that 950 million people residing in the world’s drylands will experience more debilitating water stress, heat stress and desertification, while the share of the global population exposed to major flooding will rise by 24%.  

Meanwhile, overshooting the 1.5° C warming limit, even temporarily, would cause much more severe and often irreversible impacts – from local species extinctions to complete loss of coral reefs and drowning of salt marshes to untold loss of human lives from severe heat stress and wildfires.

A chart shows GHG emission reductions needed to keep 1.5 degrees C within reach.

What Needs to Happen Now

Getting back on track with a 1.5° C global warming limit — with no or limited overshoot — will require deep GHG emissions cuts in just the next few years.  In the IPCC-modeled pathways holding warming to 1.5° C, GHG emissions would need to peak almost immediately (and certainly no later than 2025) and then drop off rapidly after that — declining 43% by 2030 and 60% by 2035, relative to 2019 levels.

Daunting as this prospect may be, there is still a glimmer of hope that future warming could be held in check.  Wind and solar power are now on the fast track to becoming the world’s leading providers of electricity.  

An annual global energy outlook issued recently by Shell notes that it took solar power more than three decades to contribute its first exajoule of energy supply.  In real time, the first commercial solar projects built in the early 1980s did not lead to the first exajoule of solar power production until 2016.  (One exajoule is equivalent to 277 terawatt-hours of electricity, or close to the amount that Mexico consumed in 2019.)

Now, solar power is on the cusp of becoming the world’s leading electricity provider.  In 2022, in its seventh year as a significant energy supplier, solar power already accounted for almost one-and-a-half times as much energy as nuclear power on a global basis, and nearly two-and-a-half times as much energy as LNG.

But because global energy consumption has more than doubled in the last 50 years, solar and wind power still need to pick up the pace to have the same impact that nuclear power did on the global power supply a half-century ago.  While wind and solar together now generate more electricity than the world’s nuclear power fleet, they will need to grow roughly twice as fast as nuclear power did during the 1970s and 1980s to have the same relative impact on the global energy mix.

Fortunately, renewables are trending in the right direction, at least for now.  Research group BloombergNEF expects 316 gigawatts of solar power to be added globally in 2023 as well as 110 gigawatts of wind power.  This continued torrid pace of growth should extend renewables’ lead in providing new power supplies at a rate that’s faster than what nuclear power and LNG achieved as they entered commercial production in decades past.

relates to Solar and Wind Are Growing Faster Than Fledgling Nuclear and LNG Once Did

Source:  Shell 2023 Energy Security Scenarios

The Power Is Still in Your Hands to Make a Difference 

While such macro energy trends require close coordination at the international level, there is still plenty of room make a meaningful climate impact in your own community and home energy and lifestyle choices.  In fact, according to the IPCC, most of the top 10 ways to mitigate climate change involve some form of direct consumer activity.  These include shifting to electric vehicles, modifying diets to eat less meat and, most of all, making investments in energy efficiency, solar power and other forms of clean energy!  

A list of 10 key solutions to mitigate climate change including retiring coal plants, decarbonizing aviation and reducing food waste.

Solaflect Energy is your trusted home energy management partner.  We help you install clean and affordable solar electricity for a more resilient and climate-friendly future.  For more information email us, or call (802) 649-3700.  Working together, the power is in our hands to make a difference. 

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