Renewable energy’s standing in the nation’s electricity sector may eclipse coal’s as soon as next year.
Led by solar and wind, renewable generation could produce as much as 21.6 percent of the nation’s electricity by 2021 — beating out coal at 20.8 percent, according to new projections published last month by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
In the meantime, coal consumption will decrease another 11 percent this year, the federal data agency predicted.
“That’s not a surprise,” University of Wyoming economist Rob Godby said in response to the data agency’s latest forecasts. “While a lot of people still aren’t aware of it, renewables are really the cheapest and most promising form of new energy generation in most places.”
“It’s all part of the same story — coal has become less competitive with alternative forms of generation, those being natural gas and renewables,” Godby added.
The newest forecasts could spell trouble for Wyoming, the largest coal producer in the nation. But several industry insiders also said the rapidity of the shift toward renewable energy could catalyze additional economic opportunities for the Equality State, if the state acts fast.
Part of reason behind renewable energy’s ascent into the upper echelons of the country’s energy market comes down to cost.
The price of wind and solar energy generation has declined rather dramatically in the past decade. Technological advancements and manufacturing improvements cut wind installation costs by one-third between 2010 and 2016, according to the Energy Information Administration. And the average cost of solar photovoltaic generators also dropped 37 percent between 2013 and 2017.
“The real price decline in solar is basically (due to) economies of scale,” said Bruce Parkinson, a University of Wyoming professor and expert on solar energy.
Parkinson notes that factories that manufacture parts for photovoltaic systems have sprouted up around the world, especially in China. The economies of scale provided by the growth in large facilities has driven prices of solar generation down.
“The price (of solar) is just going to continue to go down. It’s getting close to being as low as it can go,” Parkinson said.
Meanwhile, electricity demand has remained static, allowing renewables to eat into coal’s share of the energy market.
What’s more, recent deadlines to cash in on renewable energy subsidies extended by the federal government have also prompted an uptick in wind and solar development nationwide.
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In fact, one such tax break for wind energy projects was even extended late last year. If developers now launch construction in 2020 and bring a project online by 2021, they can qualify for the federal wind production tax credit.
Despite having a prime landscape for wind and solar facilities, Wyoming is still a relatively small contributor to the renewable energy market. Investments in renewable energy often face public scrutiny here given the state’s fidelity to coal and oil and gas producers.
But to Dennis Wamsted, an analyst and editor at energy transition think tank Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, it’s imperative that state leaders acknowledge and respond to the shift.
“You actually need to plan for this transition,” Wamsted said. “You cannot pretend like this transition is not going to occur. Renewables and natural gas, they are both cheaper than coal.”
Economics aside, public pressure for corporations and utilities to pivot to renewable energy sources in light of human-driven climate change has also mounted in recent years. Companies and lawmakers have responded in kind by setting mandates for increasing clean energy or lowering emissions.
That puts coal in a tough place.
The Energy Information Administration reported late last year that energy-related activity contributed 5.27 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere in 2018, a nearly 3 percent increase from 2017. Coal contributed to 24 percent of carbon dioxide emissions among the various energy sources that year. Natural gas contributed even more: 31 percent.
Though constructing wind and solar energy systems also contribute some greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere, emission levels are still less than coal and natural gas.
“These transitions are hard; there is no doubt about it,” Wamsted said. “But saying, ‘Something is hard’ and then saying, ‘Well, I should ignore it’ — that’s just a dereliction of duty.”
Proponents of the renewable energy source point to solar technology’s increasing efficiency and cost-effectiveness, not to mention its potential tax and job contributions for the state. Some new solar and wind developments in Wyoming could be just around the corner, though.
Energy firm Raven Solar LLC (a part of Energy of Utah) submitted an application last month to construct and operate a new fleet of solar panels on 400 acres of public land near Rock Springs.
The solar farm would provide 66 megawatts of generating capacity. The proposed Raven Solar Energy Project is in a 30-day scoping period, a time when the Bureau of Land Management reviews the potential land use impacts of the new venture.
In addition, a new 504-megawatt wind farm, proposed recently by Houston-based renewable energy firm ConnectGen, could come online in southeast Albany County as soon as 2022.
The Rail Tie Wind Project would flaunt upward of 151 wind turbines on both sides of Highway 287 just outside Tie Siding. Construction could start in the fall of 2021, if the project meets necessary federal and state regulations.
Follow the latest on Wyoming’s energy industry at @camillereports