US Renewable Energy Consumption Surpasses Coal for First Time in 130 Years
In 2019 coal consumption in the US decreased by 15%, and total renewable energy consumption grew by 1%
January 6, 2021
Annual energy consumption from renewable sources in the United States in 2019 exceeded coal consumption for the first time since 1885, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) ‘Monthly Energy Review.’
The change reflects the continued decline in the amount of coal used for electricity generation over the past decade and growth in renewable energy, mostly from wind and solar. Compared with 2018, coal consumption in the U.S. decreased by nearly 15%, and total renewable energy consumption grew by 1%.
Historically, wood was the primary source of U.S. energy until the mid-1800s and was the only commercial-scale renewable energy source until the first hydropower project began producing electricity in the 1880s.
Coal was used in the early 1800s as fuel for steam-powered boats and trains and making steel, and it was later used to generate electricity. Interestingly, EIA’s earliest energy estimates began in 1635.
EIA converts energy sources to standard units of heat, called British thermal units (Btu), to compare different types of energy reported in different physical units (barrels, cubic feet, tons, kilowatt-hours, etc.). It uses a fossil fuel equivalence to calculate the electricity consumption of non-combustible renewables such as wind, hydro, solar, and geothermal.
In 2019, U.S. coal consumption decreased for the sixth consecutive year to 11.3 quadrillions Btu, the lowest since 1964. Electricity generation from coal has declined significantly over the past decade and, in 2019, fell to its lowest level in 42 years. Natural gas consumption in the electric power sector has significantly increased in recent years and has displaced much of the electricity generation from retired coal plants.
Total renewable energy consumption in the U.S. grew for the fourth year in a row to a record-high 11.5 quadrillion Btu in 2019. Since 2015, renewable energy growth is almost entirely attributable to the wind and solar use. In 2019, electricity generation from wind surpassed hydro for the first time and is now the most-used renewable energy source for electricity generation in the country on an annual basis.
Although coal was once commonly used in the industrial, transportation, residential, and commercial sectors, today, coal is mostly used in the United States to generate electricity. About 90% of U.S. coal consumption is in the electric power sector, and nearly all the rest is in the industrial sector.
About 56% of commercially delivered U.S. renewable energy is used in the electric power sector, mostly from wind and hydroelectric power. Other types of renewable energy are also consumed in the industrial (22%), transportation (12%), residential (7%), and commercial (2%) sectors.
Biomass, which includes wood, biogenic waste, and biofuels, is consumed in every sector. Wood and the losses and co-products from biofuel production are the primary renewable sources used in the industrial sector. Biofuels such as fuel ethanol, biodiesel, and renewable diesel are used in the transportation sector. Wood, waste, solar, and geothermal are among the most common sources used directly in the residential and commercial sectors.
Meanwhile, the United States installed 3.8 GW of new solar capacity in the third quarter (Q3) of 2020, a 9% increase from the second quarter (Q2), according to The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) and Wood Mackenzie’s U.S. Solar Market Insight Q4 2020 report. The report projects a record 19 GW of solar installations for 2020, a 43% year-over-year growth.
Meanwhile, the average energy capacity cost of utility-scale battery storage in the U.S. has rapidly decreased from $2,152/kWh in 2015 to $625/kWh in 2018, according to EIA.
Rahul is a staff reporter at Mercom India. Before entering the world of renewables, Rahul was head of the Gujarat bureau for The Quint. He has also worked for DNA Ahmedabad and Ahmedabad Mirror. Hailing from a banking and finance background, Rahul has also worked for JP Morgan Chase and State Bank of India. More articles from Rahul Nair.