By Benjamin Storrow
Wind generated more electricity nationally than coal on three separate days over the past six weeks, according to an E&E News review of federal data.
Such a milestone would have seemed unthinkable a decade ago, when coal accounted for almost half of U.S. power generation. But the last 10 years have seen coal’s position steadily erode due to a combination of slack electricity demand, mounting concern over climate, and increased competition from natural gas and renewables.
The novel coronavirus only has intensified the industry’s pain. Steve Cicala, a professor who studies power markets at the University of Chicago, reckons that electricity demand is down 8% as a result of the economic lockdowns designed to halt the virus’s spread.
Coal has borne the brunt of that decline. Wind and solar generation has been largely unaffected because they have no fuel costs — meaning that utilities turn to them when available. Natural gas prices, meanwhile, are mired near historic lows. That has left coal as the fuel to be curtailed.
Coal represented 16.4% of U.S. power generation over the last month, down from 22.5% the same time last year, according to the Rhodium Group, an independent research firm. Wind and solar generation, by contrast, rose from 10.7% of generation this time last year to 12.2%.
“I think in a lot of ways it’s just sort of fast-forwarding to the future of our grid,” Cicala said.