By Valerie Volcovici
WASHINGTON - U.S. consumption of renewable energy overtook coal in 2019 for the first time since firewood was the top fuel source more than 130 years ago, the Energy Information Administration said on Thursday.
The shift underscores a decade-long decline in the coal industry, driven by regulatory efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fierce competition from natural gas, wind and solar power sources.
U.S. coal consumption fell 15% last year to the lowest since 1964, while the use of energy from sources like wind and solar notched slightly higher, the EIA said.
That brought total coal-fired power consumption to 11.3 quadrillion British thermal units (Btu) in 2019, and renewable energy consumption to 11.5 quadrillion Btu, it said.
"Historically, wood was the main source of U.S. energy until the mid-1800s and was the only commercial-scale renewable source of energy in the United States until the first hydropower plants began producing electricity in the 1880s," the EIA said, adding coal became popular in power generation around the 1880s.
The EIA’s earliest energy estimates began in 1635.
Earlier this month, government data showed that electricity generated by renewable sources like solar, wind and hydro exceeded coal-fired power in the United States for a record 40 straight days, in part because of lower overall electricity consumption during the coronavirus pandemic.
Coal tends to be among the first fuels shut off by utilities, since renewable sources tend to be cheaper to operate or are backed by state mandates.
The EIA said 90% of coal is consumed by power plants, with the rest being used by industrial facilities, while renewable energy is "more broadly consumed by every sector in the United States."
(Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Bernadette Baum)