Earth & Conservation

The Twilight of American Coal and the Rise of Renewables

Several reports this week point to tremendous growth in domestic wind and solar production and the continued decline of coal burning — a dynamic that one analyst calls "the new normal."

<p>Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty</p>

There's facts, and then there's hyperbole.

U.S. President Donald Trump has cast doubt on the cost effectiveness of clean energy technologies, saying in his 2015 book "Crippled America," "it's really just an expensive way of making the tree-huggers feel good about themselves." And, on the campaign trail and since his inauguration, he's championed government support for America's ailing coal industry.

But a series of reports this week on the state of the nation's clean energy sector show that the president is out of step not only with what scientists suggest needs to happen in order to avoid potentially catastrophic levels of global warming but also with the observations of non-partisan, objective energy-industry analysts.

Colleen Regan of Bloomberg New Energy Finance presented on Friday an overview of the domestic energy sector. The headlining theme: the U.S. economy has been growing without generating greater amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. And she credited record amounts of new, renewable energy capacity, as well as the decline of coal consumption and the growth of domestic natural gas production, for the shift.

"We're calling this the new normal because we are seeing that sustainable energy, which was formally called alternative energy, is really what utilities and corporate are investing in," she said. "So if you look at just power sector installations in the past 25 years, 92 percent of them have been renewables or natural gas. So, this really shouldn't be considered an alternative industry. It's really what we're considering the new normal here."

Regan spoke at a Capitol Hill event at which she presented the 2017 Sustainable Energy in America Factbook, which is compiled annually by BNEF and the Business Roundtable for Sustainable Energy.

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The big shift in U.S. energy consumption, she said, has been the ongoing decline of the coal sector. In 2007, 49 percent of U.S. electricity generation came from coal; last year, it was only 30 percent. Over the same period renewable generation surged from 8 percent to 15 percent, natural gas 22 percent to 34 percent.

"As a result we've seen huge declines in our greenhouse gas emissions without any sort of long-term climate policy," she said.

The cost of producing renewable energy and the cost for customers is also dropping, with wind prices - even without federal subsidies - dropping below those of conventional sources of energy, even coal, in many parts of the country.

"Conventional wisdom is that if you want to have cleaner sources of energy, it's going to cost you more," she said. But we're not actually seeing that."

In another significant milestone, the American Wind Energy Association reported Thursday that wind power capacity in 2016 surpassed that of hydro-electric facilities, which had long stood as the nation's leading source of renewable energy.

Installed wind turbines around the country could generate a total of 82,183 megawatts of power, which is enough to supply electricity to 24 million homes, according to AWEA's fourth quarter report on the wind sector. Hydro-electric facilities, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, were able to produce 79,985 megawatts of power in November of last year, the most recent month for which the agency has data.

It's important to note that while wind capacity now tops that of hydro-electric facilities, the amount of energy that's actually produced could be lower, meaning that on days when the wind's not blowing, but river flows are strong, dams could still outperform wind farms.

In a statement accompanying AWEA's announcement, Tom Kiernan, the group's CEO, struck a patriotic tone.

"American wind power is now the #1 source of renewable capacity, thanks to more than 100,000 wind workers across all 50 states," he said. "Growing this made-in-the-USA clean energy resource helps rural communities pay for new roads, bridges and schools, while bringing back manufacturing jobs to the Rust Belt."

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Job growth in the solar sector, too, was significant in 2016, outpacing the overall U.S. economy by 17 times.

The solar sector employed 260,000 workers in 2016, up from about 90,000 in 2010, and accounted for 1 in 50 new jobs created last year, according to an annual survey of solar sector jobs published by the Solar Energy Foundation. SEF projects, based on employer surveys, that employment growth in the solar sector could jump another 10 percent to 286,000 over the next 12 months.

And jobs in the solar sector pay well - median wages for installing solar panels are about $26 per hour.

Andrea Luecke, the president and executive director of the foundation, called the solar industry an "American success story."

"In 2016, we saw a dramatic increase in the solar workforce across the nation, thanks to a rapid decrease in the cost of solar panels and unprecedented consumer demand for solar installations," she said in a statement. "More than ever, it's clear that solar energy is a low-cost, reliable, super-abundant American energy source that is driving economic growth, strengthening businesses and making our cities smarter and more resilient."

In contrast to steady growth in wind and solar employment, the number of coal miners decreased 12 percent in 2015 to 65,971, the lowest on record since 1978, according to the EIA's latest annual coal data report.

Despite these market forces, President Trump appears committed to supporting the fossil fuel sector in any way he can, pledging to cut environmental regulations, withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement and signing executive orders to revive dormant pipeline projects.

Jennifer Layke, director of the global energy program at the Washington D.C.-based World Resources Institute, said the administration's approach to energy policy is out of synch with the realities of the energy sector. Job growth and capital investment in clean energy, rather than in the fossil fuel sector, she said, indicate a transition that's already well underway.

But, she said, "They're looking through the rear-view mirror."

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