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Solar and wind generated more electricity than coal for record 5 months

The future of energy in America
The future of energy in America 07:09

Solar and wind power hit a new record this year, generating more U.S. power than coal for the first five months of the year, according to preliminary data from the Energy Information Administration.

It's the first time on record that wind and solar have out-produced coal for five months, according to industry publication, E&E News, which first calculated the figures.

Official EIA data, which is released with a lag, shows wind and solar energy out-producing coal for January, February and March, while real-time figures "indicate that same trend continued in April and May," EIA spokesperson Chris Higginbotham said in an email.

When hydroelectric power is counted among the renewable mix, that record stretches to over six months, with renewables beating out coal starting last October, according to the EIA.

Cheaper than coal

"From a production-cost perspective, renewables are the cheapest thing to use — wind and solar. So, we're going to see more and more of these records," said Ram Rajagopal, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University. 

The figure marks a new high for clean power and a steep decline in coal-fired power generation, which as recently as 10 years ago made up 40% of the nation's electricity. And while the monthly figures are preliminary and could be revised in the coming months, according to the EIA, more renewables in the pipeline mean that coal power is set to keep falling.

"We expect that the United States will generate less electricity from coal this year than in any year this century," EIA Administrator Joe DeCarolis said in May. "As electricity providers generate more electricity from renewable sources, we see electricity generated from coal decline over the next year and a half."

For years, coal power has been declining, pushed out by increasingly cheap natural gas — also a fossil fuel — driven by a hydraulic fracturing boom. But coal saw a brief resurgence last year when natural gas prices shot up in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, leading some utilities in the U.S. and Europe to sign on coal-powered generators. 

Globally, coal use reached a new high in 2022, however, its bounceback has been short-lived in the U.S., as coal plants in the country retire at a steady pace. Six coal-fueled generating units have been closed so far this year.

The retirement of coal is good news for the climate. As the most-polluting energy source, coal is responsible for more than half of carbon emissions from electricity-production, despite it making up less than 20% of the grid. However, recent research on natural gas casts doubt on its comparative "clean" status. 

The Inflation Reduction Act, which dedicated billions of dollars to the expansion of clean energy, promises to boost the renewable buildout even further. But constructing more clean energy plants is only half the battle, Rajagopal said. The other half is connecting those new renewable sources to the nation's electrical grid, a process that is taking longer and longer. 

Dealing with waste from renewable energy 02:05

Connecting to the grid

On average, a project — such as a wind, solar or hybrid plant — that went online in 2022, waited five years from the time it requested a connection to the grid until it began commercial operations, according to a recent report from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. That's up from less than two years for projects built between 2000 and 2007, the April report found.

More than 10,000 projects representing 1,350 gigawatts of generating capacity are awaiting hookup to the grid, the vast majority of those zero-carbon, the LBNL said. 

"There are many hundreds of gigawatts of projects in interconnection queues of the United States," Rajagopal said. 

"Even if we wanted to accelerate [renewables] more, there is this pipe, and we have to make sure everything fits into the pipe, and making sure it all gets approved takes time."

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