Renewable energy surpassed coal and nuclear generation, becoming the number two generation source in 2020, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA).
Electric power generated by wind, hydroelectric, solar, biomass, and geothermal sources reached a record 834 billion kilowatt hours (kWh), or about 21 percent of the electricity generated in the United States last year, according to the EIA.
Renewable energy's record level of generation surpassed nuclear energy, which generated 790 billion kWh, and coal-fired power, which generated 774 billion kWh, for the first time on record, according to EIA data. The top generation source in 2020 was natural gas-fired power, which produced 1,617 billion kWh.
The changes in the 2020 generation profile were due mostly to significantly less coal use in the U.S. and the steady increase of wind and solar power, the EIA said.
Coal generation last year declined 20 percent from 2019, while renewables, including small-scale solar, increased 9 percent. Power generated from wind, currently the most prevalent source of renewable energy in the United States, grew 14 percent in 2020 from 2019. Utility-scale solar generation (projects greater than 1 megawatt) increased 26 percent, and small-scale solar, such as grid-connected rooftop solar panels, increased 19 percent.
Nuclear power declined 2 percent from 2019 to 2020 because several nuclear power plants retired and other nuclear plants experienced slightly more maintenance-related outages, the EIA said.
U.S. coal-fired generation peaked at 2,016 billion kWh in 2007. Much of that capacity has been replaced by or converted to natural gas-fired generation since then, the EIA said. Until 2016, coal-fired generation was the largest source of electricity in the United States. Last year was the first year that more electricity was generated by renewables and by nuclear power than by coal, according to EIA’s data, which dates to 1949.
Despite coal’s decline relative to natural gas and other sources of energy, the EIA expects the share of electrical output from coal-fired generation to rise this year because rising natural gas prices will make coal more economically attractive.
The EIA sees natural gas prices rising because consumption and exports of the fuel are outpacing production and imports. The agency forecasts the 2021 Henry Hub natural gas spot price to average $3.07 per million British thermal units (MMBtu), an increase of $1.04/MMBtu from the record lows of 2020.
EIA’s Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO) forecasts an 18 percent increase in coal-fired generation in 2021, compared with 2020. The agency then sees coal-fired generation falling again, by 2 percent, in 2022.
Meanwhile, the EIA is forecasting a 7 percent rise in renewable generation in 2021 and a 10 percent increase in 2022 and sees nuclear power declining 2 percent in 2021 and 3 percent in 2022 as nuclear plant retirements continue.