The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted nationwide energy supply-and-demand patterns. Stay-at-home social distancing measures have altered U.S. electricity consumption. Bulk electricity usage by commercial businesses and industrial manufacturing has given way to increased household electricity consumption as the general population isolates at home. In turn, this economic slowdown has shifted electricity generation to rely more on the renewable energy sector. Both the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) and the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysts (IEEFA) have revealed that, from March 25th through May 3rd, utility-scale solar, wind and hydropower collectively generated more electricity than coal! This record 40-day timespan has edged over 2019’s run of 38 days when U.S. renewables first beat coal last year.
Last year marked the first time renewables outpaced coal-fired electricity generation. This led to IEEFA forecasts of renewables eclipsing coal by 2021. Unexpectedly, this year’s COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated renewable energy‘s first-quarter performance in producing electricity. Hence, EIA forecasts expect electric power generated by coal “will fall by 25% in 2020.”
Interestingly, Forbes notes that “The electric power sector consistently sees its lowest coal demand in April,” owing to seasonal temperature adjustments when winter transitions into springtime. Because of the change in season, natural gas and coal generators often “schedule routine maintenance for the spring…and many coal plants spen[d] part of April offline for planned, temporary outages.” This illustrates why wind generation is typically relied upon most in springtime. As for hydropower, snowmelt often feeds rivers, thus accounting for increased electricity generation downstream each spring as well, Forbes explains.
Last year’s forecasts showed trends at play within the energy industry. Not only have upgrades expanded solar, wind and hydro infrastructure capacities, but coal plant closures have likewise been commonplace, hinting at the changing energy landscape.
Several factors have quickened the demise of coal reliance. As the EIA has shared, both investor-owned and publicly-owned municipal electric utilities began decommissioning coal-fired power plants a decade ago at the behest of local and state government public utilities commissions. Secondly, costs to construct wind farms have slid over 40%, whereas solar costs have sunk by over 80%, making both more appealing. Naturally, the decline of coal-fired power plants has positive implications for the environment and climate, since coal produces excess greenhouse gas emissions.
But another concern is alleviated, too. Back in 2008, a joint Center for Infectious Disease Research & Policy (CIDRAP) and University of Minnesota research report raised alarms on critical infrastructure planning. This report warned that pandemics could adversely affect coal supply chains and thereby prompt shortages in generating electricity to the Midwest, a region that relied on coal for 75% of its power generation, as opposed to only 5% on the West Coast. Transitioning away from coal-generated electricity these past 12 years following this report has mitigated the risk of wide swathes of Middle America losing electricity during the 2020 pandemic.
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