One of the reasons we read science fiction is to find out what happens next. My favorite science fiction sub-genre is near future, precisely because I want someone to tell me what to expect a decade from now, a year from now, a month from now. Half the fun is discovering the future through speculative fiction. The other half is watching it come true.
We may not have our bubble cities or flying cars, but one science fiction milestone, the decline of coal from the winner’s circle, may have finally arrived. According to the US Energy Information Administration, 2016 is the year coal stopped being America’s leading energy source. King Coal’s replacement: Natural gas, which (as steampunk fans know) burns more cleanly and has long been predicted to be the “transition fuel” that will eventually give way to totally clean energy, like wind and solar. As of this year, that milestone has been reached. And it didn’t take long for coal to lag far behind. April saw natural gas producing 39% more energy than coal. No doubt that gap will fluctuate in the coming months, but coal is unlikely to regain the lead.
The next energy generation method to surpass coal? Nuclear. But, despite how it looks on the chart, that’s probably not going to happen this summer. Nuclear power hasn’t grown in over a decade and coal always recovers during the summer months (all that air conditioning creates demand). But at its current rate, coal could plummet into third place as soon as this fall, certainly by spring (2017).
On the other side of the spectrum, we have our newest forms of energy, wind and solar. It may not look it, but wind as been growing by leaps and bounds. Deselect the heavy-hitters on the above chart (coal, natural gas, and nuclear) and you’ll notice that wind is close to surpassing hydroelectric power on its way to the top. I expect that to happen by 2017 or 2018 at the latest.
And don’t be fooled by the modest squiggle representing solar energy. Ray Kurzweil says it will be the dominant form of energy generation within a dozen years. Make sure to work that into your short stories, budding sci-fi writers.
UPDATE: The 2016 data is in, and that means we can take a peek at the annualized data. As you can see, below, natural gas has surpassed coal as the #1 source of energy in America, on balance, year round:
It is unclear whether the Trump administration will be successful in reversing this trend, but I’m guessing not, for one very important reason: the EPA is likely to relax regulations on fracking. Even with the recent gift the administration has given to coal, the industry will have a hard time competing with even cheaper and more abundant gas reserves.