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When will solar and wind overtake coal? Soon, U.S. energy agency says.

Henry Epp Dec 13, 2023
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Wind turbines in Big Spring, Texas. The cost-effectiveness of wind and solar power gives them a market advantage over coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel. Brandon Bell/Getty Images

When will solar and wind overtake coal? Soon, U.S. energy agency says.

Henry Epp Dec 13, 2023
Heard on:
Wind turbines in Big Spring, Texas. The cost-effectiveness of wind and solar power gives them a market advantage over coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel. Brandon Bell/Getty Images
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Over in Dubai, the COP28 global climate conference wrapped up Wednesday. It ended with nations signing on to an agreement that calls on them to transition “away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner.”

The agreement is nonbinding, but these conferences have been going on for 30 years, and this is the first time that one of these agreements has explicitly said we need to quit fossil fuels to limit global warming.

That’s already happening, to some extent, in the United States. The Energy Information Administration said this week that it expects solar and wind power — which account for the lion’s share of the renewable energy sector — to overtake coal in electricity production for the first time in 2024. But that has a lot more to do with market forces than government policy.

Coal used to be ol’ reliable. Sanya Carley at the University of Pennsylvania said it was “a very steady, efficient, predictable form of energy.”

But it also emits a lot of greenhouse gas. And that’s led to some stricter environmental regulations, with more likely to come.

Plus, coal plants usually last for 40 years or more. “It doesn’t really make sense at this point to build more coal facilities,” Carley said.

So in the U.S. right now, we’re not building more. And many plants are closing.

But there are bigger factors leading to coal’s decline that have less to do with government actions, said Steve Cicala at Tufts University.

“It’s the combination of installing more renewable generation capacity and the price of natural gas being lower,” he said. “So that gas gets called on to operate before coal does.”

Essentially, renewables and natural gas are now cheaper than coal.

“One of the extraordinary things about the energy transition in the U.S. is this has largely happened without a coherent national energy policy,” said Seth Feaster of the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

He said it’s mostly the market that’s making choices about the future of energy.

“Utilities and particularly independent power producers are very sensitive to the economics in the energy markets, and that has a very big impact on what’s driving all of this,” Feaster said.

Meaning more money and investment is going to wind and solar.

That’s prompted a big change in how renewables are viewed in the energy sector, said Steve Cicala at Tufts. 

“It used to be that you’ve had fossil fuel incumbents fighting an idea, and now they’re fighting an industry,” he said.

And there’s a chance that industry — renewables — will eventually win the fight.

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