In 2020, total consumption of fossil fuels in the United States, including petroleum, natural gas, and coal, fell to 72.9 quadrillion British thermal units (Btu), down 9% from 2019 and the lowest level since 1991, according to our Monthly Energy Review. Our new chart of U.S. fossil fuel consumption by source and sector shows how each sector consumes fossil fuels. The chart also shows fossil fuels used for industrial non-combustion or nonfuel purposes, for example, in making plastics and chemicals.
Last year marked the largest annual decrease in U.S. fossil fuel consumption in both absolute and percentage terms since at least 1949, the earliest year in our annual data series. Economic responses to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, including a 15% decrease in energy consumption in the U.S. transportation sector, drove much of the decline. The United States also had relatively warmer weather in 2020, which reduced demand for heating fuels.
We convert sources of energy to common units of heat, called British thermal units (Btu), to compare different types of energy that are usually measured in units that are not directly comparable.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Monthly Energy Review
Petroleum products, including motor gasoline, distillate fuel oil (diesel), and hydrocarbon gas liquids (HGLs), accounted for 44% of U.S. fossil fuel consumption in 2020. Every sector consumes petroleum, but the transportation sector accounted for about 68% of total petroleum consumption in 2020. Overall, U.S. petroleum consumption fell 13% in 2020 from 2019.
Natural gas accounted for 43% of U.S. fossil fuel consumption in 2020, the largest annual share on record. Every sector consumes natural gas, but the electric power sector accounted for a record-high 38% of total natural gas consumption to generate electricity and heat in 2020. Over 80% of the fossil fuel energy directly consumed in the residential and commercial sectors is natural gas, and it is mostly used for space heating. Overall, U.S. natural gas consumption decreased 2% in 2020 from 2019.
Coal accounted for 13% of U.S. fossil fuel consumption in 2020, the lowest annual share since 1949. Overall, U.S. coal consumption fell 19% in 2020 from 2019, the largest annual decrease on record. The electric power sector consumed about 90% of total coal consumption to generate electricity and heat in 2020. Coal used for electricity generation has steadily declined over the past decade, although we expect it to increase this year, according to the June update of our Short-Term Energy Outlook.
Nonfuel use of fossil fuels accounted for about 8% of U.S. fossil fuel consumption in 2020. Fossil fuels can be consumed—and not combusted, or burned—when they are used directly as construction materials, chemical feedstocks, lubricants, solvents, and waxes. HGLs accounted for 48% of U.S. nonfuel use of fossil fuels in 2020.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Monthly Energy Review
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Two very different economic blocs. Two pathways to a carbon-free future, one younger and one more mature. And one more with plenty of ambition but hamstrung by inaction. Between China, the EU and the US, three of the most powerful economies in the world all agree that pursuing a carbon neutral future is necessary if the planet is to limit global warming levels to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, as committed under the Paris Climate Agreement. But the question of how to get there is the tricky one. In the past two weeks, both China and the EU have unveiled their own sweeping plans meant to limit greenhouse gas emissions, both incredibly ambitious in their own right but both also facing headwinds.
Let’s start with China. In Shanghai, the Shanghai Environment and Energy Exchange launched the country’s national emissions trading system on July 16. Currently focused on its own companies, the Chinese emissions trading system is already the world’s largest carbon market from the first day of operations. Covering an initial 2225 power plants that are estimated to emit more than 4 billion tonnes per annum of carbon dioxide, that amount already exceeds the European Union’s scheme, which covers about 2 billion tpa of emissions according to the International Emissions Trading Association. And there is still plenty of room to grow.
China decided to kick off its carbon trading platform with a focus only on power companies, given that they are among the most polluting of industries contributing to roughly 40% of China’s annual carbon emissions and roughly 14% of global carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion according to the IEA. This initial phase allows the domestic participating companies to cover their own emissions by purchasing surplus allowance from those that have been able to cut their emissions through the exchange. Within the first week, Chinese energy giant Sinopec already closed a huge bulk deal by buying a 100,000 tonnes of carbon emission quota through its subsidiary Unipec. In the first day alone, a total of 4.1 million tonnes were traded, with the price rising from the opening CNY48 (US$7.41) to CNY51.23 (US$7.89), reflecting strong demand as the Chinese state aims to reach peak carbon emissions by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060. While the current price is still well under the €50 ($58.87) per tonnes under the EU emissions trading scheme, it is a bold step forward that can only grow.
In time, China intends to add other sectors such as iron and steel, cement, aluminium, paper, domestic aviation, building materials, and petrochemicals to future phases of the trading scheme. In addition, the first phase of the Chinese ETS is only limited to spot transactions by domestic players, but over-the-counter transactions and foreign/individual investors are expected to be added eventually one the exchange matures. Stricter carbon caps by industry may also be added, although the timing and scope have yet to be determined; China’s scheme is based on carbon intensity, rather than the EU’s absolute cap on emissions, which means that total emissions can still rise as power generation grows. For now, the price paid per on will be passed on to consumers, which promotes efficiency and incentivises emissions-cutting by giving a cost advantage to companies that are able to slash their carbon faster than required.
It’s a good start, even though it is unlikely to result in an acceleration of emissions reduction soon, given that there is not enough surplus renewables capacity to match the emissions of carbon-intensive industries. Which means that China will need to continue on its mammoth rollout of solar, wind and nuclear energy over the next decade to truly make a difference.
If China is just starting out with a framework that will service it for the next half century, then the EU is racing ahead to beat its own previous targets. The EU Commission has unveiled a new – dubbed the European Green Deal – that intends to achieve and exceed its commitments under the Paris Agreement, which bound the bloc to cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 55% in 2030 from 1990 levels and achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. The adoption of this target has already had ramifications across the continent, with almost all major energy companies adopting carbon neutral targets along the same timeline. And in some cases, even further, with the recent court judgement in the Netherlands that Royal Dutch Shell must accelerate its emissions-slashing plans globally from its already ambitious plan.
The new EU proposal aims to cut reliance on fossil even further and promote renewables. Central to this is a requirement that the share of renewable energy sources as part of Europe’s mix must rise to 40% from 20%, while limiting pollution from fossils fuels from key sectors like power, transportation, shipping, agriculture and housing – resulting in a 61% fall from 2005 levels by 2030, compared to the current target of 43%. Controversially, the EU proposal also deals with the idea of ‘imported pollution’ – carbon leakage that is caused by shifting production to countries with loose or no emissions rules by imposing a carbon import tax that will begin in 2023 for full implementation in 2026. This would ensure domestic competitiveness within the EU while incentivising trading partners that do adopt carbon plans by allowing the carbon price (as determined through China’s emissions trading system, for example) to be deducted from the carbon cost bill when entering the EU. It is a plan that has already sent shudders through global supply chains, triggering accusations of bias by developing countries. But there is also dissent for the plan in Europe itself. Emmanuel Macron’s government in France, one of the main pillars of the EU, is reportedly already lobbying to watering down the proposal to create a new carbon market for domestic heating and road transport, and phasing out all combustion engine cars by 2035. Other countries, including the Netherlands and Hungary, are also worried about the social impact, since the plan would drive up costs for average citizens. The EU Commission claims the increase in costs will not be too much, on the assumption that revenues generated from the new carbon market will be channelled to subsidise fuel bills of low- and middle-income households.
Between China and the EU, bold moves have been made to progress on a carbon neutral future. But there is one major player that has plenty of ambition as well, but is unable to proceed with similar bold steps due to politics. Since taken over the White House in January, US President Joe Biden has made renewables a focus of his administration – announcing initiatives to scale back on fossil fuels and move to 100% carbon-free electricity by 2035. But his ability to push further – by, say, creating a national renewable standard or fund renewable infrastructure is hampered by Republican obstruction and state pushback. The likelihood that the Republicans may increase their power in the next mid-term elections also pours water on the idea that Biden’s big ideas can take shape eventually. But where the American government can’t step up, private investors can step in: witness the recent shareholder revolts at Chevron and ExxonMobil. The march towards carbon neutrality will be tortuous and long, but at least there is some progress happening now to ease the difficult path the world must take in the future.
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In 2020, renewable energy sources (including wind, hydroelectric, solar, biomass, and geothermal energy) generated a record 834 billion kilowatthours (kWh) of electricity, or about 21% of all the electricity generated in the United States. Only natural gas (1,617 billion kWh) produced more electricity than renewables in the United States in 2020. Renewables surpassed both nuclear (790 billion kWh) and coal (774 billion kWh) for the first time on record. This outcome in 2020 was due mostly to significantly less coal use in U.S. electricity generation and steadily increased use of wind and solar.
In 2020, U.S. electricity generation from coal in all sectors declined 20% from 2019, while renewables, including small-scale solar, increased 9%. Wind, currently the most prevalent source of renewable electricity in the United States, grew 14% in 2020 from 2019. Utility-scale solar generation (from projects greater than 1 megawatt) increased 26%, and small-scale solar, such as grid-connected rooftop solar panels, increased 19%.
Coal-fired electricity generation in the United States peaked at 2,016 billion kWh in 2007 and much of that capacity has been replaced by or converted to natural gas-fired generation since then. Coal was the largest source of electricity in the United States until 2016, and 2020 was the first year that more electricity was generated by renewables and by nuclear power than by coal (according to our data series that dates back to 1949). Nuclear electric power declined 2% from 2019 to 2020 because several nuclear power plants retired and other nuclear plants experienced slightly more maintenance-related outages.
We expect coal-fired electricity generation to increase in the United States during 2021 as natural gas prices continue to rise and as coal becomes more economically competitive. Based on forecasts in our Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), we expect coal-fired electricity generation in all sectors in 2021 to increase 18% from 2020 levels before falling 2% in 2022. We expect U.S. renewable generation across all sectors to increase 7% in 2021 and 10% in 2022. As a result, we forecast coal will be the second-most prevalent electricity source in 2021, and renewables will be the second-most prevalent source in 2022. We expect nuclear electric power to decline 2% in 2021 and 3% in 2022 as operators retire several generators.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Monthly Energy Review and Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO)
Note: This graph shows electricity net generation in all sectors (electric power, industrial, commercial, and residential) and includes both utility-scale and small-scale (customer-sited, less than 1 megawatt) solar.
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