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Coal is no longer king in America. That's the latest findings from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), which provides independent statistics and analysis of the energy sector. Coal lost its number one spot as the nation’s top electricity source for the first time on record this April.
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The report found that total net generation of electricity from coal this past April fell from 109,591 to 88,835 thousand megawatt hours, dropping nearly 20 percent compared to last April. At the same time, the data shows explosive growth in solar power in the last year with a 60 percent increase.
“This major milestone shows that coal is on a steady path out, while clean energy solutions like solar and wind are increasingly [taking] over as prices keep falling," said John Coequyt, Sierra Club's director of federal and international climate campaigns.
And it's not just for the month of April. It's part of the long term trend which is moving increasingly away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy sources like wind and solar. A report released earlier this week from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that overall electricity consumption has slowed in the last 15 years, and the use of natural gas, wind and solar have become larger portions, while coal and nuclear have become smaller portions, of the nation's electricity generation.
As aging coal-fired power plants have been retired, especially from 2009-2013, very little new coal capacity has been added, says the GAO report. The report also found that government support of renewables was definitely helping bring on new capacity.
"Various federal and state actions have contributed to increases in wind and solar power plant capacity, including financial supports and state renewable portfolio standards," says GAO. "These increases led to wind and, to a lesser extent, solar accounting for a larger share of the nation’s energy mix, increasing from just over zero percent of electricity generation in 2001 to four percent in 2013." This number does not account for distributed solar installations, most notably rooftop solar.
"Data from an industry association show that distributed solar generating capacity has increased to reach over 8,500 MW as of the end of 2014—compared to about 10,000 MW that was installed at larger solar power plants. The electricity generated at such distributed generation sites is not generally measured or managed by the system operator," says the GAO.
These two reports confirm the findings of earlier reports on the nation's and the world's energy mix. A recent report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance found that renewable energy is set to blow past fossil fuels in the next 25 years, attracting nearly two-thirds of the spending on new power plants. With rapidly decreasing costs, solar will be the top choice for consumers, particularly in developing nations. Worldwide, solar could draw $3.7 trillion of the $8 trillion invested in renewable energy, with only $4.1 billion spent on coal, natural gas and nuclear.
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Colorado River Has Lost 1.5 Billion Tons of Water to the Climate Crisis, 'Severe Water Shortages' May Follow
California is headed toward drought conditions as February, typically the state's wettest month, passes without a drop of rain. The lack of rainfall could lead to early fire conditions. With no rain predicted for the next week, it looks as if this month will be only the second time in 170 years that San Francisco has not had a drop of rain in February, according to The Weather Channel.
The last time San Francisco did not record a drop of rain in February was in 1864 as the Civil War raged.
"This hasn't happened in 150 years or more," said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability to The Guardian. "There have even been a couple [of] wildfires – which is definitely not something you typically hear about in the middle of winter."
While the Pacific Northwest has flooded from heavy rains, the southern part of the West Coast has seen one storm after another pass by. Last week, the U.S. Drought Monitor said more Californians are in drought conditions than at any time during 2019, as The Weather Channel reported.
The dry winter has included areas that have seen devastating fires recently, including Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. If the dry conditions continue, those areas will once again have dangerously high fire conditions, according to The Mercury News.
"Given what we've seen so far this year and the forecast for the next few weeks, I do think it's pretty likely we'll end up in some degree of drought by this summer," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported.
Another alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The National Weather Service posted to Twitter a side-by-side comparison of snowpack from February 2019 and from this year, illustrating the puny snowpack this year. The snow accumulated in the Sierra Nevadas provides water to roughly 30 percent of the state, according to NBC Los Angeles.
Right now, the snowpack is at 53 percent of its normal volume after two warm and dry months to start the year. It is a remarkable decline, considering that the snowpack started 2020 at 90 percent of its historical average, as The Guardian reported.
"Those numbers are going to continue to go down," said Swain. "I would guess that the 1 March number is going to be less than 50 percent."
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center forecast that the drier-than-average conditions may last through April.
NOAA said Northern California will continue deeper into drought through the end of April, citing that the "persistent high pressure over the North Pacific Ocean is expected to continue, diverting storm systems to the north and south and away from California and parts of the Southwest," as The Weather Channel reported.
As the climate crisis escalates and the world continues to heat up, California should expect to see water drawn out of its ecosystem, making the state warmer and drier. Increased heat will lead to further loss of snow, both as less falls and as more of it melts quickly, according to The Guardian.
"We aren't going to necessarily see less rain, it's just that that rain goes less far. That's a future where the flood risk extends, with bigger wetter storms in a warming world," said Swain, as The Guardian reported.
The Guardian noted that while California's reservoirs are currently near capacity, the more immediate impact of the warm, dry winter will be how it raises the fire danger as trees and grasslands dry out.
"The plants and the forests don't benefit from the water storage reservoirs," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported. "If conditions remain very dry heading into summer, the landscape and vegetation is definitely going to feel it this year. From a wildfire perspective, the dry years do tend to be the bad fire years, especially in Northern California."
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A warm day in winter used to be a rare and uplifting relief.
Now such days are routine reminders of climate change – all the more foreboding when they coincide with news stories about unprecedented wildfires, record-breaking "rain bombs," or the accelerated melting of polar ice sheets.
Where, then, can one turn for hope in these dark months of the year?