Published on March 15th, 2019 | by Joshua S Hill
March 15th, 2019 by Joshua S Hill
The US Energy Information Administration’s latest Short-Term Energy Outlook was published this week, revealing electricity generation from coal in the United States will average 25% in 2019 and 23% in 2020, down from 27% in 2018 and continuing its steady decline to irrelevance.
The Energy Information Administration (EIA) — which published its Short-Term Energy Outlook on Tuesday — expects total US utility-scale electricity generation from natural gas-fired power plants to rise from 35% in 2018 to 37% in 2019 and in 2020, while the share of electricity generation from coal-fired power plants will fall from 27% in 2018 to 25% in 2019 and 23% in 2020. Nuclear generation will remain around 2018 levels of 19% over the next two years while hydropower will average just under 7%.
The EIA also expects total generation from wind, solar, and other non-hydropower renewables to provide 11% in 2019 and 13% in 2020, up from 10% in 2018. In 2019, the EIA also expects wind energy’s annual share of electricity generation to exceed for the first time that of hydropower’s, rising from 753 megawatt-hours (MWh) per day in 2018 to 861,000 MWh/d in 2019 — accounting for a share of 8% — and increasing again to 963,000 MWh/d in 2020 — accounting for a share of 9%.
Coal exports increased by 19 million short tons (MMst) in 2018, a 19% increase, totaling 116 MMst, but the EIA expects there to be declines across the industry — in both steam coal and metallurgical coal exports in 2019 and 2020.
The EIA’s Short-Term Energy Outlook also reiterated energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions increased by 2.9% in 2018, but predicts that they will decline again in 2019 by 1.6%, and by 0.5% in 2020. However, Ken Bossong of the SUN DAY Campaign, who regularly analyzes US Government energy data and who spoke to me via email, “[suspects] EIA’s forecast will again prove to be unduly optimistic.”
“EIA’s renewable energy numbers are close to what I would have also predicted,” Bossong added, “although maybe on the low-to-modest side. I think there is a good chance that solar, particularly, will outperform EIA’s forecast.”
“As for the coal numbers, they are generally consistent with the trend of recent years and are probably close to the mark,” Bossong continued. “The decline could be slowed down a bit if there are either federal or state efforts to subsidize existing coal plants. And worsening coal plant economics could hasten the decline a bit. Not reflected in the STEO, however, is the impact of Trump Administration efforts to support the coal industry by increasing coal exports which ultimately undermines efforts to address climate change.
“In any case, though, the STEO’s forecast for 20% renewables and 23% coal underscores the fact that very soon electricity production by renewables will overtake coal. And, based on the most recent FERC data, it seems highly likely that renewable electrical generating capacity will exceed that of coal before the end of 2019.”
“The gradual shift away from coal and the increase in renewables is positive, but we need to move much faster,” added Gary Cook, Senior Energy Analyst with Greenpeace US, who also spoke to me via email. “According to the latest climate science, a full phase-out of coal no later than 2030 in OECD countries is needed to stay within the 1.5 C total temperature change threshold identified as critical to avoiding catastrophic human and ecological impacts.
“The good news is that the cost of both renewables and storage continues to drop, with renewables plus storage already beating fracked gas on price alone in many US markets,” Cook continued. “The number of cities, states, and companies making commitments to 100% renewable energy is expanding each and every week as the transition to renewables accelerates despite failed attempts by President Trump to prop up the coal industry.
“But national trends also hide some significant regional variations, particularly in the eastern half of the US, where renewables remain at very low percentages, and fracked gas is the primarily driving the decline in coal use. We need to fully decarbonize the grid in the next 10-15 years to put us on a 1.5 degree C pathway-major new investments in fossil fuel power plants or pipelines are taking us in the other direction.”
At the same time, the United States’ Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) published its Energy Infrastructure Update with data through January 31, 2019, which showed new solar and wind generating capacity has taken the lead over that of natural gas and all other energy sources for the first month of 2019. Specifically, 18 new “units” of solar capacity totaling 631 MW and four new units of wind capacity totaling 519 MW were brought online in January, compared to only one new unit of natural gas capacity worth 465 MW.
Further, renewable energy — including biomass, geothermal, hydropower, solar, and wind — now account for 21.23% of total installed generating capacity (which is not the same as actual generation).