Here's a little good news: Wind turbines in the U.S. produced more electricity than both coal and nuclear power plants for the first time ever. It's an important milestone with a few caveats — notably that it was only for one day — but it reflects the reality that wind power is growing and coal is fading away. Now, we just need to speed up that transition a bit so it's more than a one-off.
Wind turbines produced more than 2,000 gigawatt-hours of electricity on March 29, making it the second-biggest source of electricity in the U.S. behind natural gas for that day, according to the Energy Information Administration. The EIA report notes wind has outcompeted coal and nuclear in the past, but the March feat also saw it best both at once in a renewable energy first.
That's a big win for wind power, which has grown by leaps and bounds. In 2019, wind power became the biggest source of renewable energy in the U.S., and installed capacity has increased nearly fiftyfold over the 21st century. At the same time, coal use has declined precipitously across the country. That's partly what led to the electricity generation flip-flop.
Spring weather also played a supporting role. Demand for electricity is usually lower owing to reduced heating and cooling demand. That gives some coal and nuclear plants downtime to reduce power generation and perform maintenance. Yet at the same time, winds are usually strongest in major wind-power generating regions at this time of year, cranking up output. And that's a recipe for last month's milestone. Even though wind power has been on the rise, the EIA forecast indicates it won't outcompete nuclear or coal in any month between now and the end of 2023.
So while March 29 was a great day for wind power, it's just one day in one country. We need it to happen with increasing frequency around the world if we want a shot at fixing the climate. In the International Energy Agency's net zero scenario, wind and solar alone would have to make up 70% of the global electricity supply by 2050. We're nowhere close to that yet.
To close the gap, the world will need to invest anywhere from three to six times the amount of money currently going into renewables, according to the recent United Nations climate report. On the bright side, any money invested in renewables is buying more bang for the buck; the report found the average cost to install wind power dropped 55% over the last decade. (Solar dropped even further, plummeting 85%.) Not that you need an economic reason to preserve a habitable climate, but the case is certainly becoming increasingly clear.