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Renewable Energy Usage Has Surpassed Coal, But What does that Mean

Renewable Energy: today’s hottest buzzwords. A global shift in mindset from nonrenewables to renewables has been a pivotal step towards a greener future, but the implications of the actual shift in energy usage are not often explored by those seeking it. How will this change people’s day-to-day life?  Mickey Francis of the United States Energy Information Administration released a report titled “U.S. Renewable Energy Consumption Surpasses Coal for the First Time in over 130 Years.” While the title is fairly straightforward in its message, I seek to explore the finer details of where this energy is used, how we reached this point, and what it means for the future. 


Firstly, an important distinction is that coal, while highly polluting and important to decrease the use of, is not the only nonrenewable energy source. Other forms of nonrenewable energy include petroleum, natural gas, and nuclear. A hidden detail in Francis’ report is that he recognizes that the 15% decrease in coal usage is because of a rise in the use of natural gas -- not because of the 1% rise in the usage of renewables. It is addressed briefly and not expanded upon any further. Methane, the primary component in natural gas, is 20 times more effective in trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. When natural gas is extracted for use, 2.3% of it is leaked into the atmosphere each year; equivalent to 13 million metric tons of methane entering the atmosphere (Marchese & Zimmerle, 2018). So while reducing and eventually eliminating coal usage is a victory towards a carbon-zero future, it is not the sole factor that will lead the United States towards a “green” future.

The Energy Information Administration recognizes four different sectors that consume energy: electric power, industrial, transportation, and lastly residential/commercial. Coal is only used in two of these sectors: 90% used in electric power and 10% used in industry. Renewable usage is found in every sector with 56% of its use in electric power, 22% in industry, 12% in transportation, and 9% in residential/commercial. The growing fields of solar and wind energy are projected to make reductions in nonrenewables across the board. Initially when I saw the figure illustrating the transportation sector with only biofuel use, it felt incomplete. The transportation sector pollutes the most overall compared to the other sectors due to its usage of fossil fuels. While transportation may not use any coal, there is still work to be done for it to be considered clean. 

Francis’ report accurately illustrates that coal usage is declining and renewable usage is sort-of on the rise. However, his article parades the “majority” renewable usage in a way that does not appropriately reflect just how much work needs to be done in these fields. When saying “renewable” or “nonrenewable”, one is not speaking to two halves of one whole; one is speaking to “11%” and “89%”. Do not be mistaken, of course renewables surpassing coal is a victory, but it is because of a rise in natural gas usage. It is important to keep the country accountable when paving the road to a greener future. 


Works Cited

Marchese, Anthony, & Zimmerle, Dan. “Natural Gas Production Releases More Methane Than Estimated: Why That Matters.” GreenBiz. 10 July 2018. Retrieved from: https://www.greenbiz.com/article/natural-gas-production-releases-more-methane-estimated-why-matters#:~:text=As%20the%20natural%20gas%20delivered,are%20bad%20for%20human%20health.

Francis, Mickey. “U.S. Renewable Energy Consumption Surpasses Coal for the First Time in over 130 Years.” Independent Statistics & Analysis: U.S. Energy Information Administration, 28 May 2020. Retrieved from: https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=43895

Alison Duda is studying environmental engineering at Michigan State University. In her free time she enjoys riding her bike, bullet journaling, and cooking.
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