The story is of two countries on two continents. But it is the same story of the demise of one commodity, coal, and the rise of renewables.
We are witnessing the relentless decline of the dirtiest fossil fuel in both the U.K. and U.S. There is no doubt that King Coal is dying. And that can only be good news for the climate.
Let’s first start in the United States where coal was once king. When climate denier, Donald Trump first took office, he pledged to revitalize the coal industry with slogans like “Trump digs coal.”
But the combination of COVID-19 and state and local action on climate change are adding to the demise of the once powerful industry. In 2010, coal generated 45 percent of US electricity. By 2018, that share had halved.
And this year it will get worse for coal. The US Energy Information Agency has just released energy projections and they mean bad news for coal: “The EIA expects that coal generation will fall by 25% in 2020.”
Reporting the figures, the New York Times says the U.S. “is on track to produce more electricity this year from renewable power than from coal for the first time on record… It is a milestone that seemed all but unthinkable a decade ago.”
What is most remarkable is that coal’s collapse comes “despite the Trump administration’s three-year push to try to revive the ailing industry by weakening pollution rules on coal-burning power plants.”
Facing a triple whammy of ever cheaper renewables, cheaper natural gas, and fossil fuel disinvestment, the industry now faces a fourth, potentially fatal crisis. “Now the coronavirus outbreak is pushing coal producers into their deepest crisis yet,” reports the Times.
Jim Thompson, a coal analyst at IHS Markit, told the paper: “The outbreak has put all the pressures facing the coal industry on steroids.”
“It’s an astounding milestone, since coal was generating more than twice as much power as renewables as recently as 2016,” Daniel Cohan, a civil and environmental engineering professor at Rice University, added in an email to Inside Climate News.
And once coal is gone in the U.S., it is gone. To be replaced by wind and solar forever.
And it is not just the United States where coal is in trouble. Meanwhile, in Britain, the rapid decarbonization of its electricity grid has also just reached an historic milestone, completing a whole month without coal power for 30 days. This is the first time that this has happened in the country for 138 years.
The milestone was reached last Sunday. As the National Grid, the organization responsible for overseeing the UK’s electricity distribution network, reported in its recent newsletter: “The recent low demand for energy due to COVID-19 has dramatically reduced the use of fossil fuel based generation, and this has been supported by our optimized renewable generation.”
The National Grid added that “In fact by 2025 it’s our ambition to be able to operate the electricity system at zero carbon — without the need to burn fossil fuels to keep it stable.”
For years, coal lobbyists have been saying we needed the dirty fossil fuel for when the wind didn’t blow or the sun didn’t shine. We always knew that was a lie. For years, Donald Trump tried to prop up a dying industry. And now the market has proved them both wrong. And there will be no going back.