Data from the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) highlights the enormous progress made in decarbonising the US power sector over the past 20 years but also where there is much further to go.
Progress is particularly stark for coal, which has gone from accounting for just over half (51%) of the US’s total electricity generation in 2001 to only 22% in 2021, according to annual figures from the EIA.
The number of states in which coal was used to generate more electricity than any other source has fallen by more than half, from 32 in 2001 to 15 in 2021.
A total of 12 states have instead pivoted towards natural gas, which over the past 20 years has replaced coal as the largest source of in-state electricity generation for the largest number of states.
During this 20-year period, Ohio in the Midwest and Pennsylvania in the mid-Atlantic have seen the largest declines in coal-fired capacity, both shifting to gas as the largest single source of their electricity generation.
The reasons for this are mainly economic – coal plants predominantly built in the 1970s and 1980s have become less competitive in recent years due to them ageing and the lower cost of natural gas and renewables, plus an increasing number of regulations coming into force aimed at reducing coal plant pollution.
Three Great Plains states – Iowa, Kansas and South Dakota – have wind as the largest source of their total in-state electricity generation in 2021.
Wind overtook coal for the first time in Kansas as the largest electricity generating source in 2019, and in 2021, it accounted for 45% of the state’s total net generation compared with just 34% from coal. This marks a reduction in coal use of just over one-third in 20 years.
Several other states, including Delaware, New Jersey and Tennessee, plan to wind down coal while increasing wind and solar capacity in the years between 2022 and 2029. Of the total new electricity capacity additions by 2029, 49% are projected to come from solar, 14% from onshore wind and 5% from offshore wind.
The US march away from coal
According to the EIA, US states plan to continue their march away from coal in the coming years; as of November 2022, EIA data shows that 23% of the 200,568MW of coal-fired capacity currently operating is due to retire by the end of 2029. These retirements are only those that have been confirmed and do not account for any developments resulting from the Inflation Reduction Act.
A total of 24 states have made retirement plans for the period up to 2029, with the largest amount of capacity due to retire in a single year (9,842MW) in 2028. There are no plans to develop new coal capacity.
In aggregate terms, Michigan, Tennessee, Texas and Indiana are the states expected to reduce coal the most in the years between 2022 and 2029, together accounting for 42% of total reductions in the period.
Much of this is down to their sheer size, with Texas, for example, still projected to have about two-thirds of its existing coal capacity in place by 2029.
Indeed, many states have a long way to go when it comes to reducing coal capacity as a percentage of their total electricity mix, in particular West Virginia, whose electricity generation is currently 91% coal, as well as Missouri (75%), Wyoming (74%), and Kentucky (71%).
While coal heartlands like West Virginia face strong local opposition to the move away from the fuel, in large part due to fears of job losses, alongside more structural issues like renewables supply chain constraints and trade disputes that have succeeded in slowing down wind and solar installations, the incredible growth of renewables installations in Republican states indicates that party politics at least is not a barrier.
Red states leading the way on wind
Texas, alongside Florida, Utah and North Carolina, ranked among the leaders in the growth of solar power in the US from 2010 to 2019; geography and price trump party politics when it comes to wind's expansion, with red states leading the list of those with the largest in-state electricity generation from wind in 2021.
On this phenomenon, Michelle Moore, author and former sustainability adviser in the Obama administration, has said that renewable energy projects occurring in states like Wyoming, Texas and Tennessee show how “practicality can triumph over politics”.
A positive outlook for renewables
The Inflation Reduction Act – which received zero Republican votes in the House or Senate – is a boon to red states hoping to further expand renewable energy capacity, and support local infrastructure and create new jobs. While the 80,000 workers employed in coal-fired power generation in 2019 risk losing their jobs to the transition, recent research from the University of Michigan claims that each of these jobs can be replaced by new roles in wind and solar within a 50-mile radius of the existing coal plant.
In its November 2022 forecast, the EIA claimed that renewable energy was on track to produce more electricity than coal by the end of 2022, accounting for a fifth of total US electricity production. It remains to be seen if renewables can expand fast enough for the US to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. The US Congress has directed $370bn towards energy security and climate change over the next decade.