The boom in solar and wind power in the United States will deal a fresh blow to coal country in the next few years.
Renewable energy, led by solar and wind, is projected to be the fastest-growing source of US electricity generation for at least the next two years, according to a report published Friday by the US Energy Department.
Boosted by swiftly falling prices, utility-scale solar power is expected to increase by 10% in 2019 and 17% in 2020, the Energy Information Administration said. Wind power should grow 12% and 14% in those years, vaulting it ahead of hydropower for the first time.
Coal, long the king of the power industry, continues to rapidly decline.
The share of total power generation from coal-fired power plants tumbled to 28% last year, compared with 45% in 2010, according to the EIA. Coal’s market share is expected to decline to 24% by 2020. US coal consumption declined by an estimated 4% in 2018 to the lowest level since 1979.
“Coal is just an expensive technology that can no longer compete,” said Kingsmill Bond, new energy strategist at Carbon Tracker, a think tank that examines the relationship between energy and financial markets.
That’s despite President Donald Trump’s promise to revive the beleaguered coal industry. Last month, the Trump administration announced plans to reverse an Obama-era coal emissions rule to make it easier to open new plants.
Besides environmental regulations, coal has been hurt by fierce competition from cleaner energy sources, especially natural gas. Thanks to the shale revolution, the United States has an abundance of cheap natural gas. In 2016, natural gas surpassed coal as America’s leading fuel source for the first time.
Natural gas’ share of the US power market is expected to increase from 35% in 2018 to 37% by 2020, according to the EIA. Renewables other than hydropower are projected to grow from 10% in 2018 to 13% in 2020.
Power plants will keep moving away from coal because of economics and concerns about climate change, too.
Last year was likely the second-highest year ever for retirements of coal-fired power plants, the EIA has previously said.
For example, Xcel Energy (XEL), a Minneapolis-based power company that serves western and Midwestern states, announced plans last month to deliver 100% carbon-free electricity by 2050. Excel wants to double its wind power while slashing its dependence on coal.
Households and businesses are also installing their own solar panels to reduce their carbon footprints. Small-scale solar generating capacity is expected to soar by 44% over the next two years, the EIA said.
Power executives say major companies increasingly want to buy more clean energy.
For example, Enel Green Power North America reached agreements last year to provide wind power to Bloomberg, General Motors (GM), Facebook (FB) and Adobe (ADBE). Earlier this month, Enel, which is part of the Italian energy giant Enel Group (ENLAY), announced plans to build a $600 million wind farm in Texas. By relying on renewable energy instead of fossil fuels, Enel says that the wind farm will prevent the emission of over 1.1 million tons of CO2 per year.
“We’re greening the grid,” Georgios Papadimitriou, head of Enel Green Power North America, recently told CNN Business.