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COAL REPLACED WOOD AS THE WORLD’S primary energy source in 1885. It wasn’t until 1950 that petroleum and natural gas took its place. And, these days, much to the benefit of the environment, we’re weaning off coal, particularly in the generation of electricity. Here are tidbits gleaned from recent news, together with my usual Internet sleuthing.
Coal—the Good, the Bad. For better, for worse, we have gobs of recoverable coal reserves, perhaps 435 years of the stuff based on U.S. 2021 coal production. But, as noted by Wikipedia, “The extraction and use of coal causes premature death and illness. The use of coal damages the environment, and it is the largest anthropomorphic source of carbon dioxide contributing to climate change.”
The Best News. Voice of America News, March 28, 2023, announces “U.S. Renewable Electricity Surpassed Coal in 2022.” Also, renewables continued their trend of beating nuclear generation after first doing so the year before.
VOA reports, “Growth in wind and solar significantly drove the increase in renewable energy and contributed 14% of the electricity produced domestically in 2022. Hydropower contributed 6%, and biomass and geothermal sources generated less than 1%.”
Regional Aspects. Hydropower is concentrated in the Pacific Northwest: Washington, Oregon, and northern California. It makes up more than 30 percent of national renewables.
VOA recounts, “California produced 26% of the national utility-scale solar electricity followed by Texas with 16% and North Carolina with 8%. The most wind generation occurred in Texas, which accounted for 26% of the U.S. total followed by Iowa (10%) and Oklahoma (9%).”
Reduced Costs. VOA quotes Gregory Wetstone, president and CEO of the American Council on Renewable Energy: “This booming growth is driven largely by economics. Over the past decade, the levelized cost of wind energy declined by 70%, while the levelized cost of solar power has declined by an even more impressive 90%. Renewable energy is now the most affordable source of new electricity in much of the country.”
Continuous Versus Intermittent. VOA also spoke with Stephen Porder, ecology professor and assistant provost for sustainability at Brown University: “I’m happy to see we’ve crossed that threshold, but that is only a step in what has to be a very rapid and much cheaper journey. This presents challenges for engineers and policymakers because existing energy grids were built to deliver power from a consistent source. Renewables such as solar and wind generate power intermittently. So battery storage, long-distance transmission and other steps will be needed to help address these challenges.”
This last point has appeared here at SimanaitisSays: “Optimizing Renewable Energy” talked about research at the University of California Irvine. “Got Energy? Know How To Store It?” discussed six approaches, some sounding a bit bizarre yet already in operation.
Natural Gas Largest. “The EIA report,” VOA says, “found the country remains heavily reliant on the burning of climate-changing fossil fuels. Coal-fired generation was 20% of the electric sector in 2022, a decline from 23% in 2021. Natural gas was the largest source of electricity in the U.S. in 2022, generating 39% last year compared to 37% in 2021.”
But we’re certainly experiencing change. And VOA notes that many decisions lie ahead as the proportion of renewables suppling the energy grid continues to increase. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2023
Thanks for this, interesting and informative. Regarding natural gas, comparing the percentage of electricity generation against coal is not a like-for-like comparison when viewed from the perspective of GHG production. Natural gas produces at least 40% more energy per mole of CO2 produced, so the shift from coal to natural gas reduces the CO2 burden even though they are both fossil fuels. At least that’s my take. I wrote a blogpost on this back in 2013 (Thermodynamics and the comparison of hydrocarbon fuels) if you’re interested.