According to new data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), it appears that coal may not be "king" for much longer in the U.S. power sector.
The share of electricity generated by coal during the first three months of this year was at its lowest first-quarter level in more than 30 years. The U.S. electric power sector generated about 440 terawatthours (TWh) using coal during the first quarter of 2011, which is 26.5 TWh less than the amount generated during the first quarter of 2010—despite the fact that the overall total level of generation in the United States increased by less than 1%. The amount of coal-fired generation in the first quarter of 2011 corresponds to a 46% share of total generation, which is 3 percentage points lower than the same period last year and 6 percentage points lower than the first quarter of 2008.
What's replacing all this coal-fired generation in the U.S. power mix? According to EIA, on a year-to-date basis, coal is down about 30 terawatthours (twh) from 2010, while hydroelectricity is up by roughly 31 twh, "other renewables" (the vast majority of the increase is wind, followed by geothermal and solar) are up approximately 11 twh, and natural gas is up about 10 twh. Even more striking, the longer-term trends for coal and "other renewables" are moving in the opposite directions, with wind generation up about 30-fold since 1998, while coal-fired generation has remained about flat in that same time period (with a decline since the mid 2000's). At this point, the question appears to be not so much whether renewables will continue to gain and coal-fired generation will continue to stagnate or fall, but how rapidly will these trends proceed.