Renewable Energy Overtook Both Coal and Nuclear in 2020

But fossil fuels still comprised 40% of US energy.
Brad Bergan
A solar array, with wind turbines in the background.huangyifei / iStock

Change is inevitable.

Renewables officially became the second-most prevalent electricity source in 2020, following fossil fuels, according to recent data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

However, while more scientists than ever are warming to nuclear power as a potentially green energy source, it has seen a slight slip in energy generation, in the country.

Renewables became the second-most used energy source for the first time

Several renewable energy sources, like geothermal, hydroelectric, and geothermal, comprised more than one-fifth of all electricity generated in the U.S., at 21%. Next on the list was nuclear power, at 20%, with coal at 19%. Fossil fuel-powered electricity is still number one in the country by a substantial margin, comprising 40% of all electricity generated in 2020. While this is kind of disappointing, it also represents a big step forward for renewables, showing the ongoing decline of coal's role as an energy source, which fell 20% from 2019 to 2020, whereas renewables jumped 9% in the same timeframe. And if this progress continues, renewables might overtake fossil fuels as the number-one energy source in the U.S.

Of the various renewable energy sources, wind was the most prevalent in 2020, but other types might close the gap soon. Solar power at utility scale, which involves plants producing more than 1 megawatt, surged by 26% from 2019 to 2020, according to data on the EIA's website. But this may not stay the same, since the Biden administration anticipates a rise in natural gas prices, pushing coal-fired electricity generation to higher numbers this year, recovering its second-place position in 2021. On the road to progress, backtracking is not uncommon, especially during world-historical years of calamity like 2020, when the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic swept the world, throwing timelines of nearly every eco-friendly initiative into question, not to mention major economies.

Nuclear energy generation dropped despite warming reception

In April of this year, European Union officials completed a draft that classified nuclear power as a "green investment", satisfying all standards as a sustainable energy source. In the context of a rising role of renewables over coal in the U.S., this serves to also highlight nuclear power's rise, since more and more authorities and scientists are warming to the energy source as a viable alternative to fossil fuel and coal. The European Commission decides which economic activities are feasible from a sustainable policy standpoint, and in 2020, advisors in Brussels were divided on whether nuclear should receive the stamp of green approval, so to speak.

One of the issues preventing unanimous approval involved the need to investigate the environmental impact of radioactive waste disposal. "The analyses did not reveal any science-based evidence that nuclear energy does more harm to human health or to the environment than other electricity production technologies," read a leaked report on the issue. Indeed, officials may store nuclear waste deep inside geologic formations, emphasizing standards that are "appropriate and safe," continued the report, citing successful procedures in Finland and France, which have already reached advanced development stages. But whether this slowly warming consensus on nuclear power in the E.U. is reflected at the same levels in the U.S. remains to be seen, since the energy usage rates outlined by the EIA showed nuclear electric declining 2% from 2019 to 2020, with a further 2% usage expected to be lost in 2021, and 3% in 2022. However, this was due to the retiring of several nuclear power plants, in addition to other nuclear plants undergoing a slightly higher rate of maintenance-related outages. While renewables are becoming mainstream, we should probably make sure we don't leave any potent and relatively clean energy sources behind.

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