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For First Time, Renewables Produced More Power Than Coal In U.S. For Three Days

Ryan Ford 24 Apr 2020

Coal has a long and proud history in America, but after a decade of decline from accounting for 50% of the nation's power output, its days as a power source seem to be numbered.

For the first time ever, for three days, wind and solar power produced more electricity in the U.S. than coal, according to a report from the Rhodium Group. And as NPR reported, coal does not appear to be well poised to see a comeback anytime soon.

Coal has taken a beating from a few significant factors over the past decade.

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As Axios reported, a drop in natural gas prices combined with clean air regulations introduced by the Obama administration have greatly reduced coal power generation in the U.S.

Renewables have filled much of the gap, as the Rhodium Group's Trevor Houser explained. He told Axios that because wind and solar plants have fixed costs and little in the way of margin, they "generally get priority" when decision-makers look at what kinds of plants to run.

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And, as with so many other industries, demand for coal power has dropped off during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The economic shutdown combined with warmer weather has cut deeply into demand, and since coal is a more expensive power source than natural gas, wind, or solar, the industry is taking a beating.

Matthew Preston, a coal analyst at the firm Wood Mackenzie, told NPR that "Just about everything that can go wrong, has gone wrong for the coal industry," adding that demand is down 35-40% from last year, "and last year wasn't a great year."

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However, nothing quite underscores coal's decline like seeing wind, solar, and natural gas account for more power generation over three days in April.

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According to the Rhodium Group, that's the first time it has ever happened in modern U.S. history. Coal dropped to just 15% of the nation's power output during that time.

As a result, just as demand for oil dropped off a cliff with so many drivers off the roads, creating a massive glut, coal power plants are reportedly running out of space to store their excess coal. One analyst told NPR that coal stockpiles at power plants are "basically double what it should be at this time of year."

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What remains to be seen is whether coal will weather the pandemic and bounce back, or if renewables will overtake it for good.

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It's likely that oil will rebound - all those cars will get back in gear eventually. But Rhodium's report noted that new wind and solar plants could see a setback from the pandemic as well due to the weakened economy. If natural gas prices rise again, coal could indeed make a comeback yet.

h/t: NPR, Axios

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