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Opinion
The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
 

In Our View: Effort to ditch coal encouraging but work remains

The Columbian
Published: March 31, 2023, 6:03am

The headline is encouraging, but it doesn’t mention the work that remains: “Electricity from renewables in U.S. surpassed coal in ’22.”

When Americans charge their cellphones or flip a light switch, it is increasingly likely that the electricity comes from wind, solar, hydro, biomass or geothermal sources. Those power producers accounted for 21 percent of U.S. electricity in 2022, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, while coal contributed 20 percent. It is the first time, experts say, that renewable sources have surpassed coal.

For those of us in Washington, this news likely is perplexing. Our state derives roughly two-thirds of its electricity from hydropower — a fact that has long defined the region. Inexpensive, reliable, renewable energy has fueled our economy for generations and has helped attract innovative manufacturers to the area.

Washington’s only coal-fired electric plant, a TransAlta facility in Centralia, reduced production in 2020 and is scheduled to be shuttered by 2025.

But for much of the nation, weaning off coal is an arduous — but necessary — challenge. The burning of fossil fuels is the primary driver of climate change, which increases the frequency and intensity of severe weather events and alters habitats. And coal releases more carbon than other fossil fuels.

Because of that, the steady but slow diminishment of coal is encouraging. “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,” Stephen Porder, a professor of ecology and assistant provost for sustainability at Brown University, told the Associated Press.

Digging into the latest report reveals some interesting facts. One is that natural gas is the largest source of electricity in the U.S., generating 39 percent of the output last year — an increase from 37 percent the previous year. Although natural gas burns cleaner than coal, it also is a fossil fuel that releases greenhouse gas and contributes to climate change.

Another nugget is the fact that Texas is by far the leading state for the production of wind energy. The state famous for its oil production generated 26 percent of the nation’s wind power last year; Oklahoma, another traditional oil state, ranked third. The realities of a changing marketplace are having an impact on energy producers as well as consumers, leading them to alter their approach.

“This booming growth is driven largely by economics,” Gregory Wetstone, president and CEO of the American Council on Renewable Energy, told the Associated Press. “Over the past decade, the levelized cost of wind energy declined by 70 percent, while the levelized cost of solar power has declined by an even more impressive 90 percent. Renewable energy is now the most affordable source of new electricity in much of the country.”

That is fueling changes in the economy.

As the New York Times reported in February: “Executives and workers in energy hubs in Houston, Dallas and other places say steady streams of people are moving from fossil fuel to renewable energy jobs.” And the World Economic Forum reported in 2022 that more than 3 million U.S. jobs “are in areas aligned to America’s goal of being carbon neutral by 2050.”

All of this adds up to demonstrate that the United States can, indeed, effectively move toward a clean-energy economy. Renewable energy surpassing coal as a source of electricity is just one step in an urgent journey.

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