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Renewables surpasses coal to become second most used fuel source in 2020: EIA


Coal forecast 18% higher in 2021, renewables up 7%

Coal was largest source of US electricity until 2016

Renewables account for 80% of 2021 additions

  • Author
  • Kassia Micek
  • Editor
  • Aastha Agnihotri
  • Commodity
  • Energy Coal Electric Power Natural Gas

Renewable energy generation became the second most-used electricity source in the US, behind only natural gas, after surpassing coal-fired generation and nuclear power in 2020, the US Energy Information Administration announced July 28.

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Renewable energy sources -- including wind, hydroelectric, solar, biomass and geothermal energy -- generated a record 834 billion kWh of electricity, or about 21% of all the electricity generated in the US in 2020, according to EIA. Renewables surpassed both nuclear, at 790 billion kWh, and coal, 774 billion kWh, for the first time on record.

"This outcome in 2020 was due mostly to significantly less coal use in US electricity generation and steadily increased use of wind and solar," according to an EIA statement.

Natural gas produced 1,617 billion kWh in 2020 across the US.

Coal comeback

"We expect coal-fired electricity generation to increase in the United States during 2021 as natural gas prices continue to rise and as coal becomes more economically competitive," EIA said in a statement.

Coal-fired electricity generation in all sectors in 2021 is forecast to increase 18% year on year and then fall 2% in 2022, based on EIA's Short-Term Energy Outlook. Meanwhile, US renewable generation across all sectors is forecast to increase 7% in 2021 and 10% in 2022.

"As a result, we forecast coal will be the second-most prevalent electricity source in 2021, and renewables will be the second-most prevalent source in 2022," according to EIA. "We expect nuclear electric power to decline 2% in 2021 and 3% in 2022 as operators retire several generators."

Renewables on the rise

Renewable growth shows no signs of slowing down.

There are 14 states that have 100% renewable/net-zero goals as law, while another five states have aspirational or proposed goals, according a collection of data by S&P Global Platts. That number nearly doubled from a year ago.

Only 11 US states, mostly in the Southeast, have no clean energy or renewable goals whatsoever. The remaining states have some sort of clean energy goal on the books.

Despite e federal clean energy policy, there continues to be a constant push at the state, utility and corporate level to build more renewables.

Of the roughly 39.7 GW of capacity to be added this year, nearly 80% is renewable, according to S&P Global Platts Analaytics' North American Electricity Short-term Forecast. Batteries account for nearly 6%. Renewables make up about 47% of 2022 additions and 88% in 2023, while, while batteries account for 6.8% in 2022 and 12% in 2023.

Let's break it down

US electricity generation from coal in all sectors declined 20% year on year in 2020, while total renewables increased 9%, according to EIA. The most common source of renewable electricity in the US, wind jumped 14% year on year. Utility-scale solar generation from projects greater than 1 MW climbed 26%, as small-scale solar increased 19%.

Nuclear electric power declined 2% year on year as several nuclear power plants retired and other nuclear plants experienced slightly more maintenance-related outages, according to EIA.

In its prime, US coal-fired electricity generation peaked at 2,016 billion kWh in 2007, but much of that has since been replaced by or converted to natural gas-fired generation, according to EIA. In the last five years, coal fell from the top spot to third.

"Coal was the largest source of electricity in the United States until 2016, and 2020 was the first year that more electricity was generated by renewables and by nuclear power than by coal," according to EIA.