A recent U.S. Energy Information Administration report, Short-Term Energy Outlook, notes that in 2020, nuclear power plants generated more electricity in the United States than coal-fired plants for the first time ever. Last year also marked the first time that coal generation was not the first or second largest U.S. electricity producer in more than 70 years.
Two factors led to the decrease in coal-fired generation, according to the EIA: one is the drop in the number of operating coal-fired plants, and the other is the lower utilization of those remaining coal-fired plants as the nation moves toward cleaner energy production. Coal, however, is not to be abandoned yet, according to the EIA.
The next couple of years will see changes in energy production, according to the EIA report. The EIA believes that "increases in natural gas prices will make coal more competitive in the electric power sector. This expected increase in coal's utilization more than offsets the upcoming retirement of 2.8 GW of coal capacity in 2021 and another 8.5 GW in 2022," based on information reported to the EIA by coal-fired plant owners and developers.
What about nuclear? The expected increase in the use of coal means that it should generate more electricity than nuclear in 2021 and 2022, due to the planned closures of six nuclear reactors (five in 2021 and one in 2022) during that time. As noted by the EIA earlier this year, "If all five reactors close as scheduled, 2021 will set a record for the most annual nuclear capacity retirements ever." Those planned five closures will be offset a bit by the eventual inclusion of Vogtle-3 and -4 to the grid in late 2021 or early 2022.
The bottom line: While 2020 could be considered a win for clean power generation, the United States could lose up to 5.1 GW of clean, carbon-free electric power next year. That loss, it seems, is expected to be replaced mostly by coal (and some renewable generation) as the nation awaits more clean energy.