03/25/2009 01:10 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Coal Share of US Electricity Falling

I've got some good news to share -- coal is losing its market share in the US electricity mix to less carbon-intensive sources. In the late 1990s, coal-fired power plants produced almost 53% of total US electricity. And the US EIA just released in its estimate for 2008 electricity that coal's share fell to 48.5% (from 48.6%, 49%, and 49.9% in 2007, 2006, and 2005, respectively). While this is not a revolution (yet), it is exciting to know that our country was moving in the right direction even though our President did little to push for climate responsibility.


These numbers bode well for our ability to reduce emissions at an accelerating pace in the years ahead. As I posted a few weeks back, US carbon emissions fell substantially in 2008 to a level not seen since the 1990s. And preliminary estimates for January electricity consumption point to further progress as coal and natural gas use fell 3.2% and 9.9% from January 2008, respectively.

While lower-carbon natural gas took most of the substitution from coal in the period 1998-2008, growth in non-hydro renewable energy (mainly wind) played an important role as well. Just this past December, wind generation increased a whopping 67.2% compared to December 2007, and the annual share of electricity from renewables increased to 3.3% in 2008 (from 3% in 2007 and 2.9% in 2006). With electricity consumption projected to fall in 2009, the share of renewable energy will probably grow to 3.5%+ since their generation will grow (albeit slower than in 2008) while generation from coal and natural gas falls.

And in 2010+, wind and solar can grow on the scale to potentially supply most new electrical demand. By 2012+, renewable energy can meet incremental demand and also begin to take a bigger annual bite out of the US electricity pie. This should allow the coal share of electricity to continue to drop until carbon capture and storage (CCS) allows utilities to burn fossil fuels without destabilizing our climate further.

For those concerned about a loss of coal jobs, 2010 is not the abrupt end for coal. It is only another step in the transition to a cleaner energy future - a step that will provide jobs manufacturing, installing, and maintaining wind turbines and solar arrays that more than replace jobs in dirtier energy sources.

Bottom line: If we can lower coal's share of US electricity under the climate-indifferent Bush & Co., we certainly can make great strides toward lower emissions with Obama & Co. holding the reins and a more mature renewable energy industry ready in the wings.

Onwards in the Sustainable Energy Transition-