Electricity generation is responsible for one-quarter of all US 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 models 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 US 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 US electricity mix in 2022.
Despite the progress of renewables, the decline of US 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 dependent in extreme weather, and its life-cycle emissions can be on par with coal’s due to methane leaks.
For the US 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 US, 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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