One metric has been consistently used to tally the ongoing push for a green economy. For many years, the market share of coal has stood as a stark contrast to the optimistic progress of renewable power.
Now, that contrast may have finally reached a tipping point.
A recent report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) notes that consumption of renewable energy has surpassed coal for the first time in more than 130 years.
According to the EIA’s estimates, the last time a renewable source of power accounted for the majority of U.S. energy consumption was in 1880, when wood slightly surpassed coal. At the time, biomass exceeded the fossil fuel, which had only come onto the scene thirty years earlier, by a measure of about .8 quadrillion British Thermal Units (Btu). Soon after, hydropower emerged, but in 1885 coal became the primary source of fuel consumption and has stayed in the top spot ever since.
It took another 134 years, but renewables have regained the lead. According to the EIA’s May 2020 Monthly Energy Review, renewables generated 11.5 quadrillion Btu in 2019, and it surpassed coal by .2 quadrillion Btu. The fossil fuel reached 11.3 quadrillion Btu last year, a 15% decrease from 2018 when it stood at 13.25 quadrillion Btu.
According to the EIA, this trend represents a decline in coal consumption for the sixth consecutive year. Last year’s total is the lowest since 1964.
Consumption of coal has been on a steady decline since 2008. The concurrent growth of natural gas and renewables have worked to erode at its market share.
For their part, renewables have been on an uphill trajectory for several years. The EIA reports renewable consumption has increased four years in a row. Last year’s figure is a new record for the industry. Most of the growth is attributable to the expanding role of wind and solar in the electricity sector.