Nuclear-powered electricity generation surpassed coal-fired generation for the first time on record last year, according to an analysis released Thursday by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).
In 2020, natural gas generated 1.6 billion megawatthours (MWh) and nuclear power plants generated 790 million MWh, while coal-fired electricity was third with 774 million, according to the EIA.
As of 2020, nuclear power in the U.S. had 97 gigawatts of capacity, less than half that of coal, but with a 93 percent capacity factor, more than that of coal.
Last year was the first time since at least 1949 that coal was neither the largest or second-largest source of annual electricity generation in the country, according to the EIA.
Coal-fired electricity generation has been on a downward slope in recent years as numerous coal-fired facilities have been retired or converted. Thursday’s report estimates coal-fired generation has declined 61 percent in the past 12 years.
Meanwhile, over the last decade, nuclear-powered generation has remained steady, with several plants retired, but several others increasing output after federal regulators increased the maximum power level at which they can operate.
However, the EIA projects that coal-fired electricity will increase in 2021 and 2022 while nuclear-generated electricity decreases, according to the analysis.
Warmer-than-average temperatures and a reduction in demand caused by the coronavirus pandemic combined to reduce natural gas prices last year, while temporary closures of coal mines led coal-powered electricity prices to spike. Those factors meant natural gas was more cost-competitive than coal last year, causing a drop in coal use.
However, a reduction in oil and gas demand has led to drop in production of natural gas as well, according to the EIA.