Clean energy journalism for a cooler tomorrow

Chart: Wind and solar are outperforming coal on US grid this year

Renewables are making progress in replacing coal, but to decarbonize U.S. electricity by 2035, they’ll need to replace fossil gas too.
By Dan McCarthy

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Canary Media’s chart of the week translates crucial data about the clean energy transition into a visual format.

The U.S. electric grid is dangerously dependent on fossil fuels — but the century-long reign of the country’s dirtiest power source may be ending.

In the first half of this year, wind and solar generated more power than coal in the U.S., per data from Ember. Wind and solar produced 343 terawatt-hours (TWh) total between January and June 2023, while coal produced 296 TWh over the same period. Just five years ago, coal’s share of power generation was quadruple that of wind and solar combined.

Electricity generation is responsible for one-quarter of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and coal is the dirtiest source of electric power. But as wind, solar and batteries have plummeted in cost far more rapidly than modelers predicted, renewables have become the dominant form of new electricity generation capacity in the country. That growth has helped wind and solar overtake coal in the U.S. generation mix.

This new milestone comes after all renewables — including hydropower and geothermal — out-generated coal in 2022, a first for an entire year. With nuclear in the equation, carbon-free sources accounted for over 40 percent of the U.S. electricity mix in 2022.

Despite the progress of renewables, the decline of U.S. coal was first set into motion by a boom in fossil gas consumption, which continues to rise. Though fossil gas is often held up as a transition” fuel that balances reliability with lower carbon-intensity, recent studies show it is not dependable in extreme weather, and its life-cycle emissions can be on par with coal’s due to methane leaks.

For the U.S. to meet its 2035 goal of a fully decarbonized power grid, wind and solar will need to do more than unseat coal: They’ll need to replace fossil gas, too. And as the push to electrify everything supercharges electricity demand in the U.S., renewables will need to supplant fossil gas while also growing fast enough to meet the surge of new demand.

It’s a good thing wind and solar growth is exponential.

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Dan McCarthy is news editor at Canary Media.