A recent report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration reveals that for the first time since 1885, renewable energy consumption has surpassed coal. The staggering health effects and increased cost of mining coal have caused a free-fall decline in coal consumption. Meanwhile, renewable energy sources including solar, wind, and hydropower, become cheaper to use.
Coal consumption is in its sixth consecutive year of decline — and it’s at the lowest consumption since 1964. The pressure associated with tackling climate change adds another nail to the coffin, as the industry is a notorious emitter.
Will all of this in mind, will renewables continue to beat out coal consumption? Well, as coal consumption has seen a steady 15% drop since 2018, a rebound for coal seems tough.
Renewable energy consumption has gone up for four consecutive years
There was a 100 percent growth in renewable energy consumption from 2000 to 2018. And in 2018 alone, renewables was responsible for more than 17 percent of electricity generation.
Worldwide investments totaled $282 billion, with the U.S. being the second-largest investor after China. Most growth in renewables is from wind and solar. And while they both have a ways to go, many companies have already transition to power their operations with renewables. Take Google, which has “purchased enough renewable energy to match 100 percent of [its] annual global electricity consumption” as of 2019.
Renewable energy is still expensive. But it’s becoming more cost-efficient as investments drive R&D and bring the cost of production down. Now, the average cost to buy and install a windmill is between $3 and 4 million dollars. Solar panels, on the other hand, are even cheaper and typically cost less than $100 thousand to buy and install. Nonhydropower renewable energy sources are projected to grow by 15 percent in 2020 as well.
Meanwhile, coal consumption is expected to decline by 13 percent this year, according to the EIA.
Coal consumption down for the sixth consecutive year, environmental impact becoming more clear
But coal consumption isn’t just going down because of the push for more renewable energy; it’s actually getting harder and more expensive to mine. A 2018 report found that 75 percent of all coal-powered plants spend more to generate electricity than locally-used wind and solar energy sources.
Geology works against coal consumption too; many coal seams that are easy to access have been depleted. And what’s left are the harder-to-reach reserves. For instance, in 2015, the Central Appalachian Basin was 40% below its annual average level from 2010 to 2014. The three main coal-producing regions of the country — the Northern Appalachian Basin, the Rocky Mountain Region, and the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana — all saw a decline in production as well.
But it’s not just Geology that’s working against coal — it’s health as well. Coal miners often have pneumoconiosis, a lung disease associated with regular exposure to airborne dust. The disease can cause premature death, as well as disability and impairment.
The combination of the health costs and the inefficiency of current coal mining explains why coal consumption has been on a steady decline. The combination of irreversible health effects as well as its growing economic efficiency paint a grim picture for the industry.
Lauren Beauban is an Editorial Fellow at theRising, where she covers sustainability news and influential people in the industry. She is also interested in environmental policy and how it affects people. You can pitch her stories at firstname.lastname@example.org