Renewable energy consumption exceeds coal for first time in 130 years

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 586 views 

U.S. energy consumption from renewable sources was greater than coal consumption in 2019, marking the first time that has happened since before 1885, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

This consumption shift can be attributed to the continued decline in the amount of coal used for electricity generation over the past decade and the growth in renewable energy, mostly from wind and solar. Between 2018 and 2019, coal consumption fell by nearly 15%, while total renewable energy consumption rose 1%.

Wood was the main source of U.S. energy until the mid-1800s and was the only commercial-scale renewable source of energy in the United States until the first hydropower plants started to produce electricity in the 1880s. Coal was used in the early 1800s as fuel for steam-powered boats and trains and making steel and was used to generate electricity in the 1880s. EIA’s earliest energy estimates began in 1635.

The EIA converts energy sources to common units of heat, referred to as British thermal units, to compare different types of energy that are reported in various physical units, such as barrels, cubic feet, tons and kilowatt-hours. The EIA uses a fossil fuel equivalence to calculate electricity consumption of noncombustible renewables such as wind, hydro, solar and geothermal.

In 2019, U.S. coal consumption fell for the sixth consecutive year to 11.3 quadrillion British thermal units, and this was the lowest level since 1964. Electricity generation from coal has fallen over the past decade, and in 2019, fell to its lowest level in 42 years. Natural gas consumption in the electric power sector has risen in recent years and displaced much of the electricity generation from retired coal plants.

Total renewable energy consumption in the United States rose for the fourth consecutive year to a record high of 11.5 quadrillion British thermal units in 2019. Since 2015, the rise in renewable energy can be attributed to the use of wind and solar in the electric power sector. In 2019, electricity generation from wind surpassed hydro for the first time and has become the most-used source of renewable energy for electricity generation in the United States.

Coal is mostly used to generate electricity but had been commonly used in the industrial, transportation, residential and commercial sectors. About 90% of U.S. coal consumption can be attributed to the electric power sector and nearly all of the rest is in the industrial sector.

Renewable energy is consumed in every sector of the United States. About 56% of commercially delivered renewable energy is used in the electric power sector, mostly from wind and hydroelectric power, but the energy is 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 the production of biofuels are the main renewable sources used in the industrial sector. Biofuels, including ethanol, biodiesel and renewable diesel, are used in the transportation sector. Wood, waste, solar and geothermal account for the most common sources used in the residential and commercial sectors.