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Renewable energy projected to surpass coal in America

Renewable energy in the US continues to grow
Posted at 10:17 PM, May 14, 2019

It's possible April of 2019 will prove to be an historic month for renewable energy.

For centuries, coal has been one of the primary sources of energy in the United States. But in recent years, energy sources such as wind, solar and hydro have been catching up.

Bruce Bohannan is hoping his home will eventually be carbon neutral, which means it'd solely be powered by renewable energy. It's a process he started 10 years ago when he invested in solar panels. Bohannan’s house is not your average American house.

"You can see a little bit at the very top of the house, that was our first phase of solar panels," Bohannan said.

"I have a daughter who will outlive me into the world of the future, and I really put them on for my daughter's future... for her climate future," Bohannan added.

A decade later, Bohannan is witnessing a change he had always hoped for to lower carbon emissions.

In April -- for the first time in U.S. history -- forecasters say renewable energy sources generated more electricity than coal.

"It's an indicator of what's to come," Dennis Wamsted, an energy analyst for the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, said.

His claim is based on a short-term forecast of data for the month of April. Date from the U.S. Energy Information Administration shows renewable energy surpassing coal production.

"The coal industry 10 years ago generated about 50 percent of the nation's electricity. And in the past 10 years that percentage has dropped from 50 percent to this year, EIA [Energy Information Administration] is saying about 24 percent," Wamsted said.

Electricity generation can be broken into four main categories: Natural gas generates 35 percent of our electricity; coal generates 24 percent; nuclear power 20 percent; and renewable sources generate 18 percent (3 percent is other). The percentage for coal is predicted to decrease in the coming years, whereas renewable energy is expected to do the opposite. Wamsted predicts renewable energy will surpass coal for good in three years.

“Coal's costs are going up, and renewable costs are going down which gives me a great deal of confidence that this transition is going to continue into the future," Wamsted said.

So what happened in April that spiked renewable energy production? Wamsted says, think about the changing seasons.

April is a big month for snow melt which powers hydroelectricity. In many places, there's often more wind in the springtime to power wind turbines. And solar energy increases in the spring with more direct daylight in the United States.

The coal industry's production also plays a role. Many plants shut down for maintenance in the spring, since most people around the country aren't cranking up heat or the A.C.

While this data signals a big milestone for renewables, it's not a total surprise. Clean energy is now cheaper than coal because technology has improved, and manufacturers are more efficient.

Energy Program Director Rob Sargent with Environment America says the coal industry, on the other hand, is facing a grim future.

“It's been declining steadily, and uh, coal plants are shutting down left and right. Nobody is building new ones," Sargent said.

The possible end of the coal industry has many concerned for their livelihood, but there is hope for the American workforce.

A report done by nonpartisan business group 'Environmental Entrepreneurs' shows nearly every U.S. state saw an increase in clean energy jobs last year. In fact, jobs involving renewable energy outnumbered fossil fuel jobs three to one, and employers expect job growth to continue.

"There is no question that right now in America there are more jobs in the clean energy industry than there are in the fossil fuel industry," Sargent said.

Change can be challenging, but Sargent believes the increase in clean energy positions will ease the transition into renewables as a staple provider of energy. And clean energy proponents like Bohannan are convinced the change is only for the better.

"Anything we can do to leave carbon in the ground is the right answer for the earth. We need to drastically stop emitting carbon if we're going to have a positive effect on our climate chances over the next 50 years," Bohannan said.

The United States is not the first nation in this energy transition. Renewable energy has already surpassed coal in the United Kingdom, and the country expects coal-fired energy generation will be completely cut off by 2025.