In 2020, according to sources, coal collapsed and hit a record low. Natural gas dominated, wind and sun increased, while hydropower and nuclear power remained roughly unchanged.

By Wolf Richter for WOLF STREET.

Electricity sales to all end users in the US – households, office buildings, industrial buildings and the like – have been on a bleak path for US electricity suppliers since 2008, despite the economic and population growth that these customers have invested in. More efficient electrical devices like LEDs -Lightbulbs and new air conditioning and better insulation, while more manufacturing has been relocated.

And then came the pandemic. By customer type, electricity sales show the changes in the economy as millions of jobs have vanished and other workplaces have been moved from desk farms in office towers to home work, while many retailers and restaurants have closed, industrial plants have reduced activity, and commuter rail usage has collapsed.

In 2020, total electricity sales to end customers fell by 3.9% to 3.66 million gigawatt hours, after they had already fallen by 1.2% in 2019, according to new data from the EIA of the Ministry of Energy. These two declines brought electricity sales below 2008 levels:

Electricity sales to private customers rose by 1.5% from 2019 to 1.46 million gigawatt hours, although they were a little below the record sales of 2018. Households that work from home and study from home saw the increase in the number of kilowatt hours they paid for while they ran their air conditioners, heaters, computer equipment, lighting, and other things throughout the day.

And heat played a role, with a number of states posting a record in hot July, followed by the third warmest August recorded in the US as a whole. During this time, people worked at home or did not work at home all day, leaving their air conditioners on instead of cooling off at work. And this led to record peaks in electricity sales in these weeks.

Despite the large discrepancies due to hotter or cooler summers and colder or warmer winters, there has been little overall growth since 2010:

Electricity sales to commercial customers fell by 6.3%. to 1.28 million gigawatt hours, the lowest turnover in many years. The category includes offices, retail, restaurants, and the like. Between 2008 and the record year of 2018, electricity sales to these customers rose only 3.4%, much of which was wiped out in 2019. And then the pandemic hit:

Electricity sales to industrial customers fell by 8.3%to 919,533 gigawatt hours, the lowest level since the financial crisis in 2009 when industrial activity declined. These customers include manufacturers. Before the pandemic, there was no growth at all – a result of offshoring and using more efficient equipment:

Electricity sales to shippers fell by 14.4% to 6,532 gigawatt hours, the lowest level in many years. These include subways and other electrical rail systems, streetcars, the infamous electric trolleybuses in San Francisco and elsewhere, and, in tiny ways, the San Francisco Cable Cars, which have been out of service since March and whose cables are powered by large electric motors in the cable car’s central power station and museum on Nob Hill.

Many of the systems that continued to operate saw their driver numbers drop by 80% or 90% and they stopped serving, but the trains they run are still using electricity, even if they are mostly empty. From 2008 to 2019, electricity sales to these customers were roughly unchanged:

How was this electricity generated? According to main category:

Natural gas-fired power generation continued to grow in 2020 and dominated completely. Wind and sun continued to grow in importance after outperforming hydropower in 2016, while hydropower and nuclear remained roughly unchanged and coal continued to collapse and hit record lows. The graph shows electricity generation by source per year in gigawatt hours – not “capacity”, but electricity actually generated and consumed. Details below:

Electricity generation fired with natural gas rose by 2% to a record high 1.62 million gigawatt hours in 2020, which is a record of 40.3% of total electricity generated. Since 2005, electricity from natural gas power plants has more than doubled.

Cheap natural gas in the US – a result of fracking that made the US the largest natural gas producer in the world and collapsed the price of natural gas from 2009 – and the technological innovation and marketing of the combined natural gas in the nineties gas-fired power plant with a thermal efficiency of around 65 % made natural gas the cheapest fuel to generate electricity. And coal has not been able to keep up for years.

Power generation from coal fell by 19.8% to a multi-year low of 774 gigawatt hours and only accounted for 19.3% of total electricity generated, the lowest level ever. Since its peak in 2007, coal-fired power generation has collapsed by 61%.

Formerly called “royal coal” because it completely dominated the power generation market, it was surpassed in 2016 by natural gas and in 2020 by nuclear power. At this rate, the combination of wind and sun will surpass it in two or three years.

Nuclear power production decreased by 2% to 789,919 gigawatt hours and struck coal for the first time in history. It has remained essentially unchanged since 2004. Its share in total electricity generation in 2020 rose to 19.7%.

Electricity generation from wind turbines and solar energy increased by 16.7% to a record 470,141 gigawatt hours, and their share of the overall mix rose to a record 11.7%.

Wind energy generation alone increased by 14% to 337,510 gigawatt hours and exceeded hydropower many times over (16%) after it had exceeded hydropower for the first time in 2019. The share of wind energy in the total electricity generated rose to a record high of 8.4%.

Solar energy production, including solar energy on the roof, increased by 24% to 132,631 gigawatt hours, which corresponds to a share of 3.3%.

Electricity generation from hydropower increased by 1.1% to 291,111 gigawatt hours, which corresponds to a share of 7.3% of total electricity generation in 2020. Long periods of drought, especially in the west, can reduce hydropower generation. However, this was not the case in 2020.

Geothermal power plants, utility-scale power plants that run on wood, wood fuel, and other biomass, and other sources produced 80,500 gigawatt hours of electricity, which was roughly unchanged from 2019.

Have fun reading WOLF STREET and would you like to support it? Using ad blockers – I totally understand why – but would you like to endorse the site? You can donate. I appreciate it very much. Click the beer and iced tea mug to find out how:

Would you like to be notified by email when WOLF STREET publishes a new article? Login here.