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Worlds Without End Blog

Sticky: Greetings, Carbon Based Gases (updated) Posted at 3:34 AM by Rico Simpkins


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.


Sable Aradia   |   27 Jun 2016 @ 12:01

Coal is declining and unlikely to regain the lead *in the United States.* Don’t forget that the US isn’t the world. There’s still a long way to go before most of the rest of the planet will catch up with ditching the coal thing. The US is not a good measure in this because while it may be the third largest country, that’s still only about 324 million out of 7.4 billion people. In the meantime, coal shows no sign of slowing down in China or India, and between them, they have more than 8 times the US’ population; or about 27.5 of the world’s population. I’m glad to hear it, but it’s a good start, and that’s all.

icowrich   |   27 Jun 2016 @ 13:31

Agreed, and China is on a different path, but their investment in solar is massive. The only reason that investment isn’t (yet) displacing coal is because China’s growth rate has been so rapid. No matter how many solar panels and wind turbines they produce, they consume all of that plus more coal. Because of that, coal isn’t expected to reach that tipping point (where the US currently is) until 2030.

Still, that’s a damned sight better than was the case before the US/China climate deal of last year or the Paris accords that followed.

Likewise for India. Their solar canal program is innovative and, I think, about to expand in a big way.

Buck Ward   |   02 Jul 2016 @ 20:32

Very interesting.

I’m surprised at what a small role solar plays. I would have expected it to be roughly as prominent as wind. Likewise, I thought hydroelectric would have a higher proportion and nuclear a lesser one. Our local power plant converted from fuel oil to gas a few years ago. I guess oil must not be a significant source of power. In a neighboring county a proposed coal powered plant was not granted permission for construction not long ago.

From the chart it appears the coal has declined more than other sources have increased, indicating perhaps a reduction in demand, or at least not a large increase. I expect that demand is increasing in China and India and other developing countries.

Ali Boughter   |   09 Aug 2016 @ 17:45

Land-use change, e.g., the clearing of forests for agricultural use, can affect the concentration of GHGs in the atmosphere by altering how much carbon flows out of the atmosphere into carbon sinks .

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