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EIA: U.S. Renewables consumption surpasses coal first time in modern power age

Renewables and Fossils

U.S. renewable energy consumption in 2019 surpassed coal for the first time in 135 years, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.

Total renewable energy consumption in the United States grew for the fourth year in a row to a record-high 11.5 quadrillion British thermal units (Btu) in 2019. Coal consumption, meanwhile, dropped for the sixth straight year and totaled 11.3 quadrillion Btus, according to the EIA analysis.

The overall coal consumption was at its lowest level nationally since 1964. Coal-fired electricity generation also fell to a 42-year low.

This outcome mainly reflects the continued decline in the amount of coal used for electricity generation over the past decade as well as growth in renewable energy, mostly from wind and solar. Compared with 2018, coal consumption in the United States decreased nearly 15%, and total renewable energy consumption grew by 1%.

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.

Historically, 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 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 in the 1880s.

EIA converts sources of energy to common units of heat, Btus, to compare different types of energy that are reported in different physical units (barrels, cubic feet, tons, kilowatthours, etc.). EIA uses a fossil fuel equivalence to calculate electricity consumption of noncombustible renewables such as wind, hydro, solar, and geothermal.