The Great Depression saw a major change in the power sector, and that change came in the form of an explosion in coal.
By the turn of the century, coal-fired power plants accounted for about two-thirds of the country’s electricity generation.
That percentage fell to one-third in the 1940s and 1960s, and then it dropped to one in the early 1970s.
By 2015, it was down to less than one-fifth, a number that has not yet rebounded.
By contrast, natural gas generated nearly one-quarter of the nation’s electricity in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
“What happened in the mid-1930s and the early 1940s was that coal power plants were destroyed,” says Michael Sussman, a senior fellow at the Energy Policy Institute.
“It was a very slow process, and in the ’50s and ’60s there was an enormous amount of investment in the industry.
In the early ’70s, the coal industry collapsed.
And we’re still trying to recover.”
By comparison, natural-gas power plants now generate more electricity than all of the coal plants combined.
The Great Recession of 2008/2009 saw the biggest downturn in coal use since World War II.
As the cost of natural gas soared, demand for coal plummeted, as did the price of natural-source electricity, which has remained stagnant since then.
Natural gas is now used by about 15 percent of U.S. households.
“We’ve had some significant changes,” Sussmann says.
“There’s been a big increase in natural-resource development, particularly in shale oil, and a significant increase in hydraulic fracturing in the United States.”
But that increase hasn’t been matched by a big jump in coal-powered plants.
Coal power plants still account for about half of U to the total number of power plants in the country, according to Sussmans study.
“Natural gas is a very, very important fuel for power plants,” he says.
“[But] natural-sources power plants have been pretty much at the bottom of the heap.”
What about renewables?
According to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, coal plants were responsible for about a third of the state’s electricity production between 2003 and 2015.
But by 2020, they accounted for less than 10 percent of the U. States’ power generation.
“The fact that coal was the dominant source of electricity generation for decades is very unfortunate,” says Suss, adding that natural-power generation accounted for only 10 percent to 15 percent in the state in 2015.
“But it has been falling since 2009.”
Sussons study estimates that coal-generated power plants contributed to about a half of all U. S. power plant retirements, a situation that has been exacerbated by climate change.
The United States has experienced a drop in coal consumption since 2009, according the ERCOT.
That has created a glut of coal-burning power plants that is keeping the country from meeting its renewable energy targets.
The ERCOTS’ new report, “Power Outages and Power Grid Safety,” finds that coal consumption is falling as a percentage of the total electricity generation in the U, and natural-energy generation is increasing.
Natural-energy electricity generation increased by 9 percent between 2003-2015, but natural-fuel power generation decreased by 6 percent.
That increase is partially offset by a drop of 1 percent in coal power generation, which is partially accounted for by a surge in hydraulic fracking and the burning of natural peatland.
But Suss says that the trend in natural gas is even more worrisome.
“That is a direct result of fracking and a natural-Gas explosion,” he said.
“In the last 20 years, hydraulic fracturing has exploded, and we’ve seen a huge increase in the use of fracking in the gas industry.”
That spike in natural energy production comes as the natural gas boom has been largely driven by fracking operations, with thousands of new wells drilled in the past few years.
“If you go back to the beginning of the 20th century, the use [of fracking] was very much driven by oil and gas, and [now] we have an explosion of natural oil and natural gas,” Sessman says.
While natural gas has been an energy source since the 1960s and 1970s, it’s the natural-oil boom that’s responsible for the spike in production.
Natural oil is a type of natural fuel that’s extracted from natural resources and is used in everything from cars to power plants.
“So natural gas’s been part of that explosion,” Sommers says.
As natural gas extraction continues to rise, the boom in natural oil production is expected to continue, he says, adding, “Natural oil and the shale boom will continue.”
What’s more, the ECROT’s new study finds that natural gas power plants account for only a small share of the electricity generated in the nation.
“While natural gas and coal have been dominant sources of