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Renewables Beat Coal in U.S. for Record 40 Days

Energy
Renewables Beat Coal in U.S. for Record 40 Days
Wind turbines generate electricity at the San Gorgonio Pass Wind Farm near Palm Springs, California, with snow-covered Mt. San Jacinto in the background on Feb 27, 2019. Robert Alexander / Getty Images

Renewable energy in the U.S. has beaten coal as the country's leading electricity source for a record 40 days.


The record, reported by the Institute for Energy Economics & Financial Analysis (IEEFA) Monday based on U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) data, far surpasses the previous record of nine days during April 2019. It suggests that the falling energy demand due to coronavirus lockdowns could lead renewables to generate more electricity than coal overall for the first time this year.

"IEEFA had forecasted that power generation from renewables would likely surpass coal-fired generation in 2021, an important milestone in the energy transition that is well underway," the group wrote. "But in the first quarter of 2020, renewable generation unexpectedly exceeded coal, and with this strong performance continuing in the second quarter, there is an increasing chance that the milestone could occur this year."

In 2019, renewables only beat out coal for a total of 38 days. April was their most successful month, when they generated more electricity than coal for a total of 19 days. April of 2019 was also the first month when renewables generated more electricity than coal in the U.S. overall.

This April, hydropower, wind and solar generated more electricity than coal for every day of the month, but clean power's winning streak actually began March 25 and has extended at least to May 3, IEEFA said.

Green energy's success is down to a number of factors, IEEFA explained:

  1. Low gas prices
  2. Warmer weather
  3. Increased renewable energy capacity added to the grid last year
  4. Decreased energy demand due to the coronavirus lockdowns

Falling energy demand is a boon for renewables because coal is more expensive, meaning it is usually cut first by utilities when demand falls, CBS News explained. This has played out internationally as well. The International Energy Agency (IEA) reported last week that only renewable energy sources had grown in 2020 so far and were expected to continue growing, while all the major fossil fuels were in decline.

"This is a historic shock to the entire energy world. Amid today's unparalleled health and economic crises, the plunge in demand for nearly all major fuels is staggering, especially for coal, oil and gas. Only renewables are holding up during the previously unheard-of slump in electricity use," IEA Executive Director Dr. Fatih Birol said at the time. "It is still too early to determine the longer-term impacts, but the energy industry that emerges from this crisis will be significantly different from the one that came before."

The IEEFA data also affirms that coal is on the way out despite the efforts of President Donald Trump to bolster the industry, as CBS pointed out. And while the pandemic may have accelerated the shift, it did not cause it. As early as January, coal's market share fell below 20 percent for the first time in decades, IEEFA said. Several utilities have also promised to phase out coal-fired plants between 2030 and 2050, The Hill reported.

"The fate of coal has been sealed, the market has spoken," University of Texas energy expert Michael Webber told The Guardian in 2019. "The trend is irreversible now, the decline of coal is unstoppable despite Donald Trump's rhetoric."

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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