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Coal-fired electricity is falling below solar in NC — but there's more to the trend

 A smokestack and solar panels
David Boraks
Electricity from solar power is growing as coal-fired generation is falling in North Carolina. At left, Duke Energy's Marshall coal plant on Lake Norman and a solar farm in central North Carolina.

This story appeared first in reporter David Boraks' weekly email newsletter. Sign up here to get the latest news straight to your inbox first.

Solar electricity generation outpaced coal generation in North Carolina in the first three months of 2023, for the third time in the past couple of years. It's another sign of how North Carolina is evolving toward cleaner forms of energy.

Coal was used in 37% of electricity generation in 2015 in North Carolina. In the first quarter of 2023, it was down to 7%, while solar was up to 8%. Solar also edged above coal in the last three months of 2021 and the third quarter of 2022, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

"Based on this data, we’d expect to see solar generation regularly surpass coal generation starting this year," said Matt Abele, interim executive director of the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association.

Abele said North Carolina is in line with nationwide trends. And he said the trend is accelerating as utilities retire or reduce the use of coal-fired power plants and more solar comes on line.

"There is an overarching sort of trend line in which we're seeing a continual decline in coal generation and a continual increase in solar generation," he said.

That's driven in part by solar development costs, which have fallen 76% since 2010, and the rising cost of coal.

Nationwide, renewable energy in 2022 passed coal for the first time for a full year, according to the EIA. North Carolina is slightly behind the broader national trend. For one thing, our state has a single utility-scale wind farm near Elizabeth City operated by Avangrid for Amazon.

And North Carolina's apparently rosy first-quarter report is actually a bit more complicated than it looks. It's not just a simple case of solar replacing coal. Another factor in coal's decline is a big increase in electric utilities' use of natural gas, which is cheaper and less polluting, though still a fossil fuel.

The EIA says the use of natural gas for electricity generation in the state has nearly quadrupled in the past decade.

Chart: Solar electricity generation outpaced coal generation in North Carolina in the first three months of 2023, as natural gas rises fast.
N.C. Sustainable Energy Association
U.S. Energy Information Administration data
Solar passed coal in the first quarter of 2023 as a percentage of electricity generated by all North Carolina utilities. But gas-fired generation is also growing fast.

"When you look at the charts, you see natural gas has really taken off as well, and displaced a lot of that coal generation. But at the same time, you're seeing solar continue to grow," Abele said.

These figures from the EIA are statewide numbers, incorporating generating facilities owned by the state's dominant utility, Duke Energy, as well as those connected to Dominion Energy in the state's northeast corner, and small municipal and cooperative power companies.

Duke Energy, which operates in both North and South Carolina, has slightly different numbers, though it sees a similar trend. As of Dec. 31, 2022, Duke generated about 9% of its electricity from coal and 6% from solar, spokesman Randy Wheeless said. He said South Carolina has far less solar than North Carolina.

"There's no doubt that we're continuing to solicit solar from other developers and build solar ourselves. So that trend is going up. Over time, we're closing down our coal-fired units in North Carolina," Wheeless said. "So I don't know if it's one year, three years, five years, whatever, but definitely the lines will cross, and solar will be a bigger part of the energy mix than coal."

North Carolina was No. 2 in the country for installed solar capacity as recently as a couple of years ago. But the pace of new solar construction has slowed as changing state policies have given more control to Duke over what gets built and how much developers can get paid. In 2022, North Carolina ranked No. 4 nationally, and the state is continuing to slip, Abele said.

Since North Carolina changed the rules in House Bill 589 in 2017, Abele said, "We've seen a shift in which the utility has control now of pretty much all sorts of procurement, or additional solar on the grid, which has dramatically slowed the growth of solar here within the state."

The Solar Energy Industries Association reports that North Carolina ranked 16th in the U.S. in solar growth in 2022. SEIA says the state's projected growth over the next five years ranks No. 30.

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David Boraks previously covered climate change and the environment for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.