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Data shows a surprising shift in how Americans are powering their homes: '[It's] driven largely by economics'

"Moving forward, you can't have emissions continuing to go up."

“Moving forward, you can’t have emissions continuing to go up."

Clean energy production has overtaken coal for the first time in the U.S., according to government data in 2023. 

In 2022, renewable energy sources — wind, solar, hydro, biomass, and geothermal energies — generated a combined share of about 21% of the total electricity produced in the U.S. Coal, by comparison, dropped from 23% in 2021 to 20% in 2022. Nuclear production has also dropped in recent years.

The largest share of wind energy came from Texas, which also contributed the second-largest portion of utility-scale solar after California. One study has shown the cost benefits of the growth in renewables to consumers who rely on Texas's ERCOT electrical grid. 

The increase in renewable generation was driven by growth in wind and solar generating capacity. According to the data report, utility-scale solar capacity went up from 61 gigawatts to 71 gigawatts (enough to power around 53.3 million homes by one estimate). Wind capacity increased from 133 gigawatts in 2021 to 141 gigawatts in 2022.

While wind and solar generation increased, the amount of hydro, biomass, and geothermal energy produced remained largely the same. 

A report by IdeaSmiths estimates that between 2010 and 2022, the mass adoption of renewables reduced wholesale electricity costs by $27.8 billion. Renewables have also cushioned against rising coal and natural gas prices in 2022 by reducing wholesale electricity market prices by $20.60 per megawatt-hour. 

This growth of renewables should be good news for reducing the U.S.'s air pollution from heat-trapping gases, and some reports have also noted that reductions in these gases may have also been driven by natural gas replacing coal-fired energy production. 

"When you look at the data, natural gas has been a major driver for lowering greenhouse gas emissions from electricity because it's been largely replacing coal-fired power plants," Melissa Lott, director of research for the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University, told AP News

Natural gas remains the largest power source in the U.S. Burning natural gas produces less carbon pollution than coal, but it still generates planet-warming pollution from carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. 

There are indications that this could begin to change in 2024. While renewables are projected to increase their power generation share, natural gas is expected to stagnate, and coal could drop again..

"Moving forward, you can't have emissions continuing to go up, you need to bring them down quickly," Lott told  AP News.

"This booming growth is driven largely by economics," added Gregory Wetstone, president and CEO of the American Council on Renewable Energy. "Renewable energy is now the most affordable source of new electricity in much of the country."

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