Looking at how the energy mix in the U.S. has changed during the last 240 years, the leaders and laggards are clearly evident.
Wood, which once powered life on and off the battlefield for settlers during the American Revolution, gave way to an era of coal, which took off in the 1850s. But coal was eventually replaced by oil, with the Spindletop geyser in 1901 driving the hydrocarbon resource to dominance ever since.
Oil still reigns, but there is a growing appetite for natural gas. Coal is increasingly becoming undesirable—despite the Trump administration’s quest to resurrect it—as the nation develops a taste for renewables, particularly for wind and solar energy.
A report released July 3 by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) pointed out that fossil fuels still make up the bulk of the nation’s energy consumption—at more than 80%. The EIA tracked the U.S. energy mix back to 1776, the year the Declaration of Independence was signed.
With over 35 quadrillion British thermal units (Btu) consumed in the U.S., petroleum’s share of the energy mix was the largest in 2016. Petroleum was followed by natural gas with just under 30 quadrillion Btu and coal with less than 15 quadrillion Btu, the latter having steadily fallen in the last couple of years as natural gas usage increased.
Pushing an agenda to spur job growth in the U.S., President Donald Trump has been working to give the hurting coal industry—the dirtiest of the fossil fuels—a boost despite movement in the U.S. and beyond toward cleaner forms of energy. Just last week Trump announced plans to lift U.S. lending restrictions for overseas coal projects. He mentioned a new coal plant; however, at least three large coal-fired power plants have closed recently.
“The decline in the fossil fuel share of consumption is attributable mainly to declines in coal consumption,” the EIA said in the report. “U.S. coal consumption fell nearly 9% in 2016, following a 14% drop in 2015. Overall, U.S. coal consumption has declined almost 38% since 2005. In each of the past 20 years, the power sector has accounted for more than 90% of total U.S. coal consumption.”
Reality is that King Coal has been dethroned by cheap natural gas.
“Consumption of natural gas has risen in nine of the past 10 years,” the EIA said. “As recently as 2006, the United States consumed more coal than natural gas [in energy-equivalent terms], but as natural gas consumption has increased—particularly in the electric power sector—natural gas use in 2016 was about twice that of coal.”
Booming natural gas production, largely the result of prolific production from U.S. shale reserves, has also played a role in lowering carbon emissions in the nation. The EIA forecasts national gas production will continue to rise, with an average production rate of just over 73 Bcf/d this year. Rising production has opened the door to a more secure energy future for the U.S. and growing export opportunities abroad.
Combined, the EIA said the fossil fuels made up 81% of the total U.S. energy consumption last year. The percentage was, however, the lowest it had been in the past century in 2016. The renewable share of energy consumption in the U.S. was 10.5%, the largest renewable share since the 1930s, the EIA said.
Of the renewables, solar and wind electricity generation have seen the most growth.
“Liquid biofuel consumption—more than half of which is ethanol blended into motor gasoline—has also increased in recent years, contributing to the growing renewable share of total energy consumption,” the EIA added.
See how other forms of energy stacked up.
Velda Addison can be reached at email@example.com.