To take on the climate crisis, the United States needs to build a lot of renewable energy, and fast. While the power sector—which accounts for 28 percent of the nation’s climate pollution—has been getting cleaner every year as renewable energy becomes the cheapest form of new electricity, new data shows some states are moving faster than others.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) power sector data released last week offers the first official state-by-state look at 2019—what was built last year, what was closed, and what it means for our nation’s power mix and emissions. With some politicians promising radically different futures for the country—from a coal-powered renaissance to a 100 percent clean future—EIA’s new release shines a light on how these futures stack up relative to today.
Closing fossil fuel power plants saves lives
Fossil fuels produce some nasty stuff. It’s not just carbon dioxide (CO2) that wreaks havoc on our environment. Sulfur dioxides (SO2), which come from coal plants, and nitrogen oxides (NOx), which come from both coal and gas plants, are public-health pollutants that have been regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) since its inception in 1970.
Under the EPA’s Acid Rain Program, the nation’s first cap-and-trade mechanism, NOx and SO2 emissions reached an all-time low in 2019. Thanks to coal closures, stronger regulations, and a switch to cleaner and more efficient energy use, SO2 levels fell by 23.3 percent last year.
About one-fifth of 2019’s SO2 reductions came from Texas. The state’s reduced pollution levels prevented up to 118 premature deaths, 3,900 asthma attacks in children, and 2,700 other respiratory events, according to EPA’s benefit-per-ton sourcing.
Also notably in 2019, NOx emissions from power plants fell by 14.4 percent. Ohio, Texas, and Indiana accounted for about one-quarter of these reductions, as many of their coal plants closed and those that remained were operated much less often.
Nationwide, SO2 and NOx emission reductions helped avoid between 940 and 2,110 premature deaths and avoided close to 64,500 asthma attacks in children last year alone. The dollar value of these avoided deaths, ER visits, respiratory events, and lost school and work days is estimated to be between $11.2 and $24.8 billion nationally for 2019.
A Strong Year for Wind
Wind power became the largest source of renewable electricity generation in 2019, overtaking hydropower for the first time on record. Over 12 gigawatts (GW) of new wind power came online, enough to power 4.2 million homes every year. That’s more homes than in Los Angeles and Chicago combined.
This buildout was partially driven by an expiring tax credit. The production tax credit (PTC) gives a small credit to wind farm owners for each unit of energy their wind farm produces. But they only get the credit if their wind farm begins construction by the end of 2020, which means many developers are working hard to get projects started ahead of that deadline.
Kansas, Iowa, and North Dakota are now all generating enough wind power every year to meet over half of their energy needs. And this is happening independent of energy policy: these states have either no binding renewable energy requirements on the books (Kansas, North Dakota) or have a standard set decades ago and already surpassed (Iowa).
These states and their neighbors are blustery places—which makes wind energy cheap. The price of a new wind contract in these states ranges from $9.30 to $19.70 a megawatt-hour (MWh). The cost of generating power from an existing nuclear or fossil-fueled plant is $23.90 and $35.90 a MWh, on average, respectively.
It’s no surprise that utilities and corporations—like Google, AT&T, and Walmart, which collectively buy power from over 4.5 GW of wind (or almost 2,000 wind turbines)—are locking in these low rates now.
Gas increasingly dominates the grid
Gas grew from 32 percent to 37 percent of the nation’s electricity mix in 2019, mainly replacing generation from coal. Electricity from coal power plants fell from 30 percent to less than 25 percent of the electricity mix. Over the last few years, much of the gas growth has come from areas either on top of or close to shale gas—like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Virginia. In 2019, Virginia sourced over 60 percent of all it’s electricity from gas.
Although many people still think gas is clean—it isn’t. Gas emits less carbon dioxide than coal but comes with its own host of environmental, ecological, and health issues related to the extraction (e.g. fracking), transmission (e.g. pipelines), and combustion of gas.
Gas’ dominance of our electricity system is relatively new. Its rapid rise was the result of cheap, under-regulated fracked gas. As a result, gas developers have kept building, when we should have been focusing on using more energy efficiency and clean power instead. Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania have over 8 GW of new gas under construction right now—which could produce as much carbon pollution as 4 million cars each year. There isn’t room in the emissions budget for all this gas.
Right now, gas plants are clinging to the argument that we need them because they can supply energy when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining. But as we build more renewable energy capacity and develop better batteries, gas plants will find they’ve run their course.
And it’s not just climate hawks who say this. Financial institutions, regulators, and think tanks warn that gas plants may quickly become unnecessary stranded assets.
Solar plus storage is already the new normal in parts of the U.S.
Solar power is already known as one of the fastest-growing sources of new power and jobs in the United States. Three states now get over 15 percent of their generation from solar power as of 2019, with California closing in on 20 percent. California leads the country in solar power—hosting over one-third of all solar in the United States.
But the declining costs of battery storage are marking a new era. Solar plus storage—or “solar+”—is becoming an economic reality and could become more cost-effective than new gas in the next few years (it already is in the sunniest parts of the nation).
Battery storage allows a solar farm to provide electricity in the evening, when electricity demand is highest. These “peak” hours between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. have traditionally been the hours for gas: when the sun is setting, the nighttime winds have yet to pick up, and people are coming home from work and powering up their homes. These are gas plants’ most profitable hours, and solar+ is cutting into them.
Both batteries and solar have gotten much cheaper. Over the last decade, the prices for storage and solar have fallen 87 and 88 percent, respectively, and are expected to continue a substantial decline.
This means that across the nation, the new norm for solar farms is to be built with battery storage. The top five states for solar+ have almost 8.5 GW of solar+ projects in the queue—150 percent more than all utility-scale solar capacity added in 2019. Going forward, solar+ is poised to become a major pillar in the solar revolution.
The Future Is Renewable
2019 was a strong year for wind and solar power. The year saw states, cities, and industry make big commitments to clean energy. And in states that don’t have strong climate policy, renewable energy won just based on economics. The ongoing switch to clean energy is reducing pollution and helping people live better, healthier lives.
The clean energy transition gained new momentum in 2019, and this momentum looks to remain strong in the coming years. Wind power is cropping up across the Plains and Midwest, solar+ storage systems are blooming in the West, and dirty coal continues to lose ground to cheaper, cleaner alternatives everywhere. In just the last decade, the electricity sector has come rather far from its dirtier roots, but we are going to need to push it further and faster to secure a climate-safe future.