In 2020, Americans used 447 million short tons (to distinguish from metric tons) of coal. That’s enough to fill 4 million railroad cars, which sounds like a lot. But it’s also the country’s lowest annual coal consumption since 1965, and even that barely hints at the historical territory coal may soon explore. A few more years at the downward pace of the past decade, and U.S. coal use will reach levels last seen in the 19th century.
This year coal is getting a respite as a roaring economic recovery boosts electricity demand after last year’s pandemic-induced drop. The U.S. Energy Information Administration is forecasting a 12% increase in coal consumption for the year and a slight increase in 2022. After that, though, it’s hard to see what could stand in the way of a resumption of the decline, which averaged 5% a year in the decade before the pandemic.
Most of the market-share loss so far has been to fracked natural gas, but the combination of cheap wind and solar power plus better batteries will likely push coal’s continued decline. Donald Trump’s pro-coal policies failed to slow its downward spiral; President Joe Biden’s climate policies will aim to accelerate it. By 2030, BloombergNEF forecasts, electricity generation from coal will have fallen to about half of 2020’s depressed level.
Coal became the country’s primary energy source in the late 1880s, displacing the forest-destroying practice of burning wood. It ceded the top spot to petroleum in 1950 but enjoyed a late-20th-century renaissance as the primary fuel for power plants. Now its long and useful—if environmentally costly—run in the U.S. would seem to be nearing an end.
U.S. coal use fell at a 5.2% annual pace during Barack Obama’s presidency and at a 10.1% pace during Trump’s.
Of the coal consumed in the U.S. in 2020, 91% was burned to generate electricity, with almost all the rest used for steelmaking and other industrial purposes.