In 2020, renewables generated a record 834 billion kWh of electricity, or about 21% of all the electricity generated in the U.S., according to the Energy Information Administration, coming in second to natural gas at 1,617 billion kWh.
Renewable energy sources include wind, hydroelectric, solar, biomass and geothermal energy. Only natural gas produced more electricity than renewables in the U.S. in 2020. Renewables surpassed nuclear (790 billion kWh) and coal (774 billion kWh) generation for the first time on record. This outcome in 2020 was due mostly to significantly less coal use in U.S. electricity generation and steadily increased use of wind and solar.
In 2020, U.S. electricity generation from coal in all sectors declined 20% from 2019, while renewables increased 9%. Wind grew 14% in 2020 from 2019. Utility-scale solar generation (from projects greater than 1 MW) increased 26%, and small-scale solar (such as grid-connected rooftop solar panels) increased 19%. The specific contribution from hydropower was not listed.
Coal-fired electricity generation in the U.S. peaked at 2,016 billion kWh in 2007, and much of that capacity has since been replaced by or converted to natural gas-fired generation. Coal was the largest source of electricity in the U.S. until 2016, and 2020 was the first year that more electricity was generated by renewables and nuclear power than by coal (according to EIA’s data series that dates back to 1949). Nuclear electric power declined 2% from 2019 to 2020 because several nuclear power plants retired and other nuclear plants experienced slightly more maintenance-related outages.
EIA said it expects coal-fired electricity generation to increase in the U.S. during 2021 as natural gas prices continue to rise and as coal becomes more economically competitive. Based on forecasts in its Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), EIA expects coal-fired electricity generation in all sectors in 2021 to increase 18% from 2020 levels before falling 2% in 2022.
EIA expects U.S. renewable generation across all sectors to increase 7% in 2021 and 10% in 2022. As a result, EIA forecasts that coal will be the second-most prevalent electricity source in 2021 and renewables will be the second-most prevalent source in 2022. EIA said it expects nuclear electric power to decline 2% in 2021 and 3% in 2022 as operators retire several generators.