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Renewables to overtake coal-fired generation for first time in US in 2020: Moody's

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Decline in coal-fired output to drop fuel needs below 500 mil mt

Pandemic may accelerate permanent shift away from coal use

Houston — Renewable facilities are expected to generate more power in the US than coal-fired stations in 2020, a first for the course of a full year, driven by a decline in demand for coal units' services due to the coronavirus pandemic, Moody's Investor Services said June 18.

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While US power generation was down 5.4% year on year through mid-May, "this has not affected all fuels equally, with gas and renewables increasing their share, nuclear holding steady and coal's share shrinking to 17.5% as of May 15, 2020 from 24.8% in the same period of 2019," Moody's said in the report.

By late March, following the spread of the novel coronavirus in the US, renewable generation had overtaken its coal counterpart as demand was affected by lockdowns across the country.

In its June Short-Term Energy Outlook, the US Energy Information Administration said generation from renewables is expected to grow 11% year on year in 2020, while coal generation is expected to fall 25%, which would see renewables account for a larger share of the US generation stack than coal-fired units over the course of the year.

"Moody's forecast last year was for coal to fall below a 20% generation share in 2023, so the current situation brings forward that level by several years," the report said.

With the decrease in coal-fired generation, thermal coal markets will feel the "knock-on effects," Moody's said, of an industry "which is already struggling against the headwinds of a shrinking market."

The drop in coal-fired generation is expected to lead to a decline of 100 million mt in US thermal coal consumption in 2020 for a second consecutive year, putting total US use below 500 million mt.

Additionally, "the decline in power demand could hasten the decline of coal generation by further weakening the economic viability of already-challenged coal plants and prompting permanent switching" to gas-fired output, Moody's said.

"As a result, even if demand returns, the power market may choose alternative power sources as coal plant closures accelerate and more renewable generating capacity is brought on stream to displace it," it added.