Can Solar Power Really Beat Coal?

Energy & Resources

By Patrick Kerns

Recent significant drops in the pricing of solar panels have experts wondering how much longer before the cost of solar power will beat the cost of electricity produced by coal. The consensus seems to be growing that parity in many markets will be around 10 years from now, if not sooner. However, solar power still only contributes about 1% to U.S. energy production.

The drop in the price of solar is attributed to gains in technology, significant gains in economies of scale and significant advances in battery storage technology, all of which are helping to create new demand and rapidly decrease the prices for solar panels. However, coal is not only fighting solar panels; it is also up against abundant cheap natural gas, the potential resurgence of nuclear power and the rise of wind power. While president-elect Trump has vowed to support the coal industry, it may be harder to overcome demands of the market that have moved away from coal to other sources of energy. The Trump administration could make certain changes to regulations, and subsidies could help to support coal, however these may only temporarily stem the tide against other sources.

While coal still makes up about 30% of U.S. energy production, that number has been slipping due to transitions to other energy sources, most significantly to natural gas. However, the push to on-shore manufacturing (including by Trump himself), may create more renewable energy manufacturing jobs that may put further pressure on coal by manufacturing more renewable energy components in the United States. Tesla has unveiled a solar roof that is designed to replace existing roofing solutions. These will be manufactured in the U.S. and serve as a potential competition to coal.

While coal will remain a significant part of U.S. energy production for years to come, the potential for cheaper solar panels is just another challenge for the coal industry to deal with. 

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