Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Fossil Fuels Declining as Renewables Rise

The San Juan Generating Station is closing down. At its peak, it had a capacity of 1,848 MW. Photo: Wikipedia.

George Harvey

Every month or so, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) publishes its estimates of short-term changes in the energy markets. Among its data is a table showing its expectations of probable infrastructure additions and retirements, organized by technology.

FERC’s projections of probable additions include no new coal-burning power plants over the next three years, but 20,696 megawatts (MW) of capacity to be retired. While 23,415 MW of natural gas plants are expected to come online, 5,935 MW are expected to retire. FERC projects 4 MW of additional oil-burning additions, but 3,986 MW of oil-fired capacity to be retired. Altogether, this means that FERC is projecting a reduction of 7,198 MW of net generating capacity powered by fossil fuels over three years.

The picture is a bit different for renewable energy. Probable additions of wind power come to 26,798 MW, with retirements of 239 MW. Probable additions of solar power are 26,154 MW, with no retirements. FERC projects 2,063 MW of hydropower probably added, against retirements of 7 MW. For other renewable energy (geothermal, wasted heat, and biomass), 433 MW are expected as probable additions and 102 MW as expected retirements. All told, FERC projects the net change in renewable capacity to be 55,100 MW.

This may seem surprising, especially considering that current policies of the Trump Administration favor fossil fuels and all FERC commissioners are Trump appointees. Nevertheless, it seems to confirm changes we have been seeing reported, and they come constantly.

To illustrate this, here are ten headlines that I saw over the seven day period of July 28 to August 3:

  • July 28 – Era of Subsidy-Free Offshore Wind Turbines Has Arrived, Researchers Say – RenewEconomy
  • July 29 – Solar-for-Coal Energy Swaps Could Facilitate Utilities’ Renewables Transition, Analysis Shows – Morning Consult – (There is no need for natural gas as a “bridge fuel” in many places.)
  • July 30 – Record EV Sales in Europe – CleanTechnica – (Electric vehicles sales are increasing, even as fuel vehicles sales are off badly.)
  • July 30 – Renewables Set to Replace Coal-Fired San Juan Generating Station – New Mexico Political Report
  • July 30 – Texas Utility CPS Energy Kicks Off Search for More Than 1 GW of Clean Resources – Greentech Media
  • August 1 – Oil Giants Post Historic Losses as Covid-19 Obliterates Demand – Huffington Post
  • August 2 – Deutsche Bank to Discontinue Lending to Coal Miners – EconoTimes
  • August 3 – OPEC Struggles to Manage ‘Permanent Demand Destruction’ – CleanTechnica
  • August 3 – More Coal Power Generation Closed Than Opened Around the World This Year, Research Finds – The Guardian
  • August 3 – NextEra Energy Sees Hydrogen as a Zero Emissions Alternative to Natural Gas – CleanTechnica

This was not a particularly extraordinary week. I put the list together for this article on August 3, choosing the then-most recent week’s news to illustrate my point. And the point is that renewable energy sources are pushing fossil fuels out the door.

One important note is that the old idea of using natural gas as a “bridge fuel” seems no longer to be attractive. This is especially worth examining because the cost of natural gas is now at a low – low enough that many companies extracting it are going bankrupt – and yet, customers are not really moving to it.

Another powerful move in recent months is that utilities, power generators, and oil companies all seem to be excited to adopt hydrogen as a fuel. While there is a “dirty” type of hydrogen, which is derived from methane, adoption of hydrogen is often paired with electrolysis driven by green energy. Again, this is a move away from fossil fuels.

The adoption of renewable energy to replace the coal-burning was mandated by a unanimous decision by the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission. Natural gas is not needed for the change, and it is not wanted.

Renewable energy has a number of attributes that make it superior to fossil fuels. To start with, it is less expensive. It can be produced locally, in most places giving extra benefit to the local economy. Properly set up, it is more reliable than the old thermal plants it is replacing. It is not subject to the whims of the market, major parts of which are unapologetically controlled by the OPEC cartel.

Major drivers of intentional moves away from fossil fuels are the environment and human health. In an age of Covid-19, it is worth noting that Americans die from air pollution faster than they do from the pandemic. But also, the damage we are doing to the environment is by itself sufficient reason to put an end to our use of fossil fuels. We are not changing fast enough to address those issues fully. Not yet.

Nevertheless, the change is happening, with new evidence of a profound shift to renewable fuels every day. Watching this reminds me of a Sonny and Cher song, “The Beat Goes On.”

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