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U.S. Renewable Energy Capacity Beats Coal for the First Time

Renewable Energy
Newport Renewables installs solar panels on the Powers Building in the Rhode Island Capitol Hill complex on June 12, 2017. Robert Beadle / U.S. Department of Energy

What's the future of coal? The answer may be blowing in the wind. Or running through our waters. Or, maybe it's at the end of a sunbeam.

Wherever the answer is found, the message is clear. Coal is on a downward trend in the U.S. and renewables are on the rise, according to a new report released by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC.


The report shows that renewable energies had slightly more installed capacity than coal, as CNN reported.

This means that power plants are capable of producing more energy from clean sources than they are from coal.

"Coal has no technology path," said Jeff McDermott, managing partner at Greentech Capital Advisors, a boutique investment bank focused on clean energy, as reported by CNN. "It's got nowhere to go but extinction."

While the discrepancy is slight, the trend is clear. The non-profit SUN DAY, which campaigns for renewable energy, analyzed the data. A press release by the non-profit SUN DAY Campaign, which analyzed the data, noted that the new additions of wind, solar and hydropower to the electrical grid " was enough to push renewable energy's share of total available installed U.S. generating capacity up to 21.56 percent. By comparison, coal's share dropped to 21.55 percent (down from 23.04 percent a year ago)."

Yet, that number does not take into account solar panels that people put on their roofs, which accounts for roughly 30 percent of the nation's solar powered electricity, according to SUN DAY. "That would suggest that solar capacity is now actually 4% — or more — of the nation's total and could increase by more than 20,000 megawatts by May 2022," according to the press release.

Coal's downward trend has been ongoing since its peak in 2008 and has no end in sight. Coal consumption has dropped by 39 percent to the lowest level in 40 years, according to the US Energy Information Administration, as reported by CNN.

The rise of renewables over coal has happened despite President Trump's promise to slash environmental regulations to revive the coal industry. Analysts say the shift toward renewables is being driven more by economics than regulation. "The government can tap on the brakes or accelerate this movement — but this progress will continue moving forward," said Matthew Hoza, senior energy analyst at consulting firm BTU Analytics, as reported by CNN. "For the most part, the public is calling for renewables."

Power companies are responding to the public's demand by investing heavily in renewable energies. Con Edison invested $2.1 billion in wind and solar projects last year, making it the second largest solar producer in North America. Minnesota based Xcel Energy once championed coal, but has now pledged to produce only carbon-free electricity by 2050, according to CNN.

The move away from coal prompted McDermott, the Greentech Capital Partner, to call the Trump's plan to save coal a "ridiculous concept" akin to trying to save the rotary phone, saying, "The public doesn't want it. And the world can't take it," McDermott said to CNN. "The Trump administration is playing political favorites, trying to prop up an industry that is technologically obsolete."

A solar weather monitoring station looms over an old coal strip mine in the heart of coal country, Somerset County, PA, with the Casselman Wind Farm spinning in the background. The station collects data for a proposed utility-scale solar array at this site.

Dylan Humenik / U.S. Department of Energy

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Protestors marched outside the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on Monday, August 26, during the MTV Video and Music Awards to bring attention to the water crisis currently gripping the city. Karla Ann Cote / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Will Sarni

It is far too easy to view scarcity and poor quality of water as issues solely affecting emerging economies. While the images of women and children fetching water in Africa and a lack of access to water in India are deeply disturbing, this is not the complete picture.

The city of Flint, Michigan, where dangerous levels of pollutants contaminated the municipal water supply, is a case in point — as is, more recently, the city of Newark, New Jersey.

The Past is No Longer a Guide to the Future

We get ever closer to "day zeros" — the point at when municipal water supplies are switched off — and tragedies such as Flint. These are not isolated stories. Instead they are becoming routine, and the public sector and civil society are scrambling to address them. We are seeing "day zeros" in South Africa, India, Australia and elsewhere, and we are now detecting lead contamination in drinking water in cities across the U.S.

"Day zero" is the result of water planning by looking in the rear-view mirror. The past is no longer a guide to the future; water demand has outstripped supplies because we are tied to business-as-usual planning practices and water prices, and this goes hand-in-hand with the inability of the public sector to factor the impacts of climate change into long-term water planning. Lead in drinking water is the result of lead pipe service lines that have not been replaced and in many cases only recently identified by utilities, governments and customers. An estimated 22 million people in the US are potentially using lead water service lines. This aging infrastructure won't repair or replace itself.

One of the most troubling aspects of the global water crisis is that those least able to afford access to water are also the ones who pay a disproportionately high percentage of their income for it. A report by WaterAid revealed that a standard water bill in developed countries is as little as 0.1 percent of the income of someone earning the minimum wage, while in a country like Madagascar a person reliant on a tanker truck for their water supply would spend as much as 45 percent of their daily income on water to get just the recommended daily minimum supply. In Mozambique, families relying on black-market vendors will spend up to 100 times as much on water as those reached by government-subsidized water supplies.

Finally, we need to understand that the discussion of a projected gap between supply and demand is misleading. There is no gap, only poor choices around allocation. The wealthy will have access to water, and the poor will pay more for water of questionable quality. From Flint residents using bottled water and paying high water utility rates, to the poor in South Africa waiting in line for their allocation of water — inequity is everywhere.

Water Inequity Requires Global Action — Now.

These troubling scenarios beg the obvious question: What to do? We do know that ongoing reports on the 'water crisis' are not going to catalyze action to address water scarcity, poor quality, access and affordability. Ensuring the human right to water feels distant at times.

We need to mobilize an ecosystem of stakeholders to be fully engaged in developing and scaling solutions. The public sector, private sector, NGOs, entrepreneurs, investors, academics and civil society must all be engaged in solving water scarcity and quality problems. Each stakeholder brings unique skills, scale and speed of impact (for example, entrepreneurs are fast but lack scale, while conversely the public sector is slow but has scale).

We also urgently need to change how we talk about water. We consistently talk about droughts happening across the globe — but what we are really dealing with is an overallocation of water due to business-as-usual practices and the impacts of climate change.

We need to democratize access to water data and actionable information. Imagine providing anyone with a smartphone the ability to know, on a real-time basis, the quality of their drinking water and actions to secure safe water. Putting this information in the hands of civil society instead or solely relying on centralized regulatory agencies and utilities will change public policies.

Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of Water Foundry.

Note: This post also appears on the World Economic Forum.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.

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