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Energy Economics Weekly Briefings

Shining a Light on Coal Consumption

Written by: Ellen Hughes-Cromwick

Key Takeaways:

  • Coal used to produce electric power varies widely by state.
  • Adjusted for population, California is truly the “outlier” with near eradication of coal use for electric power.
  • Since 2010, the cost of renewables and natural gas to produce electric power fell, resulting in substitution away from coal.
  • “Based on Northern China’s population of more than 500 million between 1990 and 2000, the Huai River (free) coal policy led to a loss of more than 2.5 billion life years.” (Source –

The decade of the 2000s will be remembered for many “economic” things — recovery from the financial crisis, ongoing globalization, low inflation and low wage growth coupled with income inequality, and an up and down move on oil prices. It will also be remembered for the move away from coal as a feedstock for electric power. The variation in coal use is substantial across the country but declining everywhere. There are no two states alike. Using the Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) data on energy consumption by state and by use found here, combined with the U.S. Census Bureau data on population by state, comparisons are made across the Midwest states, California and the nation as a whole. Data on other states or regions are not included here.

  • The first chart shows coal consumption for the entire electric power industry for 2010 and the 2018 EIA estimate. Coal consumption reached nearly 91 million short tons in 2010 and has fallen to an estimated 64.6 million tons this year, an average annual drop of 4.2%.
  • There is substantial variation in the reductions by state (see second chart). Based on average annual % change, six states had coal consumption reductions greater than the national average. By far, California outperforms all states in the Midwest region with an average annual reduction of 28.3%.
  • Adjusted for differences in population, the picture looks a bit different. The third chart shows per capita coal consumption for the entire electric power industry based on EIA’s preliminary estimate for 2018. The Census Bureau population figures for 2017 were used to derive the per capita consumption estimates.
  • Note here that California’s per capita coal consumption has disappeared, largely due to conversion to natural gas, regulation, and climate. The U.S. national average is just under 200 lbs per person while Michigan remains above the national average at 241 lbs per person.
  • At the other extreme, note that North Dakota consumes an average of 2,779 lbs per person for their electric power industry.
  • Coal use sits at the intersection of energy and public health: This 2013 study found that a “free coal” policy in one China region led to a reduction in lifespan of 5.5 years compared to another region where coal use required a monetary purchase.