Solar vs. Coal

AFP Photo/Sakis Mitrolidis

In the US, renewable energy is commonly portrayed as a bitter rival to coal. While heralded as the future of energy by certain proponents, some groups of politicians have alternatively promised to end the “war on coal”; strip renewable subsidies that have supposedly crippled the coal industry, and reconsider environmental regulations that have given renewables an unfair advantage.

In this past April, US Energy Secretary Rick Perry argued that wind and solar energy threaten the reliability of the US power grid. He contended that coal mines and power plants have shuttered at an alarming rate, largely due to the rising popularity of renewable energy. However, solar enthusiasts cheered when a recently published study appeared to contradict the Energy Secretary. The Department of Energy report, commissioned by Perry himself, found that renewable energy has not posed a significant threat to the electricity grid, and it is not the primary reason coal plants are closing.

But is renewable energy really that popular in the US that it could shake the coal industry to its core?

According to a report by the US Energy Information Administration, in March 2017 solar and wind energy accounted for 10% of the US electricity generation. This is the first time it has done so.

Monthly Net Electricity Generation From Selected Fuels (Jan 2007 – Mar 2017)

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration.

But by 2040, it’s projected that more than one third of US electricity will come from solar and wind.

This trajectory poses some interesting questions that politicians have attempted to answer: should American consumers be worried about the increase in renewable energy? Is it right to consider renewable energy a threat to traditional energy sources and companies?

Well on one hand, it is clear that the American coal industry is experiencing a serious decline.

The Evolution of the US Energy Supply 1776 – 2014

Source: Visual Capitalist and EIA.

Between 2012 and 2017, the US shut down nearly 50 gigawatts (GW) of coal-fired generation capacity. And only one US coal mine has opened in the past seven years. The previously mentioned Department of Energy report offers several explanations for coal’s decline, stating that “the biggest contributor to coal and nuclear plant retirements has been the advantaged economics of natural gas-fired generation.” As shown in the visual above, cheaper oil prices have steadily attracted a significant chunk of coal’s business.

The study also found that the rise of solar and wind energy is only a secondary cause, rather than a primary cause as was suspected, for why coal plants have been closing. And while renewable energy has not been the main reason coal plants are closing, it may however, very well pose as a feasible alternative.

A new study recently concluded that the cost of solar and wind already rival the cost of opening new coal power plants in US and Germany. Interestingly, that will also soon be the case in the world’s biggest solar market: China.

China’s Big Tipping Point


Last year, seven of the top oil companies, such as BP and Shell, created an investment fund to develop technologies meant to promote renewable energy. Moreover, US utility companies, especially ones that have long heavily relied on coal, are also emerging as leaders in investments in renewable energy.

Many American politicians and pundits have often pitted the two energies against each other: solar vs. coal, renewable vs. fossil fuel, clean vs. dirty. But it’s important to understand that the two forms of electricity are not necessarily heated rivals. Rather, electricity production has had a long history of innovation and companies using the cheapest technology out there to gain an edge, and give the consumer the best option available.

So will renewable energy sources take over the energy sector entirely in fifty, thirty, or even twenty years?

It is difficult to say, but renewable energy is certainly not the malicious leviathan it is sometimes portrayed to be in public debates. It’s a rapidly developing technology, allowing home and business owners, as well as power plants and energy companies, a chance to get cheaper electricity. And who doesn’t what that?

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