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ANALYSIS: Renewable energy consumption topped coal in 2019 for the first time since 1885: EIA

Highlights

Coal energy consumption falls to lowest level since 1964

Renewable energy consumption rises four straight years

Low gas prices spurring reduced coal consumption

Houston — US renewable energy consumption in 2019 surpassed coal energy consumption for the first time in 130 years as coal used for electricity continues to decline while more renewables are joining the grid as part of an energy transition to cleaner power sources, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration's Monthly Energy Review.

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Total renewable energy consumption in 2019 reached a record high of 11.5 quadrillion Btus, an increase of 1.4% year on year and the fourth straight year to grow, according to the report. Meanwhile, coal energy consumption fell to 11.3 quads, a drop of 15% year on year to its lowest level since 1964 and its sixth consecutive year to fall.

"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," according to EIA.

Coal burns in 2020 are expected to be down even more than in 2019 and renewable generation is expected to be even greater, according to S&P Global Platts Analytics.

"This is a result of low gas prices as much as it is a result of renewable capacity build out," said Manan Ahuja, Platts Analytics North American manager.

Natural gas spot prices for Henry Hub dropped more than 19% year on year to average $2.514/MMBtu in 2019, according to Platts assessments. So far in 2020, Henry Hub has averaged $1.802/MMBtu, plunging nearly 35% for the same period a year ago.

Natural gas consumption in the electric power sector has significantly increased in recent years, displacing much of the electricity generation from retired coal plants, according to EIA.

Coal capacity shrank by roughly 10 GW over the last 12 months due to retirements and conversions to gas while gas capacity, inclusive of conversions and repowering projects, added more than 8 GW, according to Platts Analytics' North American Electricity Short-Term Forecast.

Coal is expected to lose a total of 7,200 MW to retirements in 2020 and 3,350 MW in 2021, on top of 13,642 MW in 2019, according to Platts Analytics.

Even so, Plats Analytics expects some rebound in coal generation in 2021, due to higher gas prices, though coal still may not get to 2018 levels, Ahuja said.

US ENERGY BACKGROUND

Historically, wood was the main source of energy in the US until the mid-1800s and was the only commercial-scale renewable source of energy until the first hydropower plants began producing electricity in the 1880s, EIA noted. 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.

About 90% of all coal consumption is in the electric power sector today, according to EIA. Renewable energy is more broadly consumed by every sector in the US with about 56% used in the electric power sector, 22% in industrial, 12% for transportation, 7% by residential and 2% in commercial, according to EIA.

Since 2015, US renewable energy growth is almost entirely attributable to the use of wind and solar in the electric power sector. Electricity generation from wind surpassed hydro for the first time in 2019 and is now the most-used source of renewable energy for electricity generation in the country on an annual basis, according to EIA.

About 11,830 MW of wind power capacity was added to the US grid in 2019 and wind is expected to grow by another 15,298 MW in 2020. US solar power generation capacity grew by 5,276 MW in 2019 and is expected to increase by 10,100 MW in 2020, according to Platts Analytics.

With the US consuming more renewable power, EIA projected electricity generation from renewable sources such as wind and solar to surpass nuclear and coal by 2021 and then to surpass natural gas in 2045 with the share of renewables in the US electricity generation mix expected to increase from 19% in 2019 to 38% in 2050, according to EIA data.