US energy consumption from renewables poised to outpace coal

‘In 2019, US annual energy consumption from renewable sources exceeded coal consumption for the first time since before 1885,’ EIA says

U.S. energy consumption of power generated from renewables could outpace consumption from coal in 2020, according to data released last month from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

Renewable energy’s growing share comes as U.S. coal carloads dropped by nearly a quarter last year, according to data from the Association of American Railroads (AAR).

U.S. energy consumption of power coming from renewable sources was 8.73 quadrillion Btu for the first nine months of 2020, according to EIA’s monthly energy report released on Dec. 23. Renewable energy sources include hydroelectric power, geothermal, solar, wind and biomass. 

In contrast, U.S. energy consumption of power coming from coal was 6.85 quadrillion Btu for the same time frame.

Indeed, U.S. energy consumption coming from renewable sources already outpaced coal in 2019, although the difference was minimal and close to flat. U.S. energy consumption from renewables was 11.332 quadrillion Btus in 2019, compared with 11.326 quadrillion Btus from coal.

“In 2019, U.S. annual energy consumption from renewable sources exceeded coal consumption for the first time since before 1885,” EIA said in a Dec. 31 “Today in Energy” note

EIA continued, “This outcome mainly reflects the continued decline in the amount of coal used for electricity generation over the past decade as well as growth in renewable energy, mostly from wind and solar. Compared with 2018, coal consumption in the United States decreased nearly 15%, and total renewable energy consumption grew by 1%.”

(Graph: U.S. Energy Information Administration)

Coal carloads shrink in 2020; intermodal traffic boosts overall US volumes for the year

As U.S. energy consumption of power generated from coal declines, so have U.S. coal carload volumes. For the week ending Saturday, U.S. coal carloads year-to-date since Jan. 1, 2020 — practically 2020 volume — was 24.6% lower compared with the same period in 2019, at 3.07 million carloads, according to AAR.

Meanwhile, U.S. carloads were 12.9% lower at 11.48 million carloads. Only grain showed a year-over-year percentage gain: It was up by 4.9% to 1.19 million carloads.

In comparison, U.S. intermodal traffic was also lower year-over-year, although volume gains in the third and fourth quarters helped to offset the losses that segment experienced in the second quarter because of the coronavirus pandemic.

U.S. intermodal traffic was 1.8% lower, at nearly 13.68 million containers and trailers.

Combined U.S. carload and intermodal traffic totaled 26.16 million carloads and intermodal units, a 7.2% decrease from the prior year.

U.S. rail carloads (blue: RTOTC.USA), intermodal trailers (orange: RTOIT.CLASSI) and containers (green: RTOIC.CLASSI) over the past five years. (FreightWaves SONAR)

For December, U.S. carload and intermodal volume totaled nearly 2.44 million carloads and intermodal units, up 4.4% from December 2019. 

Carloads slipped 3.7% to 1.1 million carloads. WIthin that, grain carloads rose 27.9%, chemicals rose 3.7% and iron and steel scrap were up 12.9%.

Coal carloads fell 14.5% in December, while crushed stone, sand and gravel fell 14.8% and petroleum and petroleum products slipped 15.8%.

In contrast, U.S. intermodal traffic increased 12.2% to 1.33 million containers and trailers. 

“Before the pandemic even hit, railroads began 2020 on less than ideal footing because of weakness in the manufacturing sector and lower port activity caused by trade disputes,” said AAR Senior Vice President John T. Gray in a statement. 

He continued, “For several months earlier [in 2020], railroads suffered near-record traffic declines, but they worked hard to keep the goods we all need moving. By the end of the year, rail traffic was close to pre-pandemic levels, sparked by sharply higher grain and intermodal shipments along with the reopening of auto assembly plants.” 

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Joanna Marsh

Joanna is a Washington, DC-based writer covering the freight railroad industry. She has worked for Argus Media as a contributing reporter for Argus Rail Business and as a market reporter for Argus Coal Daily.