US fossil fuel consumption from coal, oil, and natural gas peaked ten years ago in 2007 at 85.927 quadrillion btu, and is unlikely to ever return. There are a number of trends underneath that peak that are worth telling. Briefly, coal has been in superdecline; oil consumption is back to levels last seen in the late 1990’s; and natural gas, bucking the trend, has made an enormous consumption advance. And then of course, there is the revolution taking place in wind and solar. Last year, 2016, total fossil fuel consumption came in at 78.569 quadrillion btu, despite, over the past decade, a US population advance of 25 million people. As most analysts now understand, the US will easily meet its Paris goals regardless of policy because economics have now taken over. US emissions have entered long term decline. Indeed, if you think US fossil fuel consumption hasn’t peaked, and is going to start rising again to make new all time highs, you’d be obligated to explain why. Or better, how.
Let’s run through the underlying trends in the three main fossil fuels, and then take a final look at the most updated trends in wind and solar power....
Coal. A terrible thing happened to coal over the past decade. First, natural gas undercut coal in price. Then, wind and solar started to undercut coal in price. Finally, it just so happened that these changing economics took place right as a large tranche of the US coal fleet came into the end of its lifecycle. Had much of the US coal fleet come to retirement, say, in the 1990’s, the country would be saddled with a much younger, harder-to-dislodge fleet. Accordingly, US coal consumption–which is upticking a little bit from low levels this year–is in superdecline. Unfortunately for coal, there is no way to claw back its lost competitiveness in a world where wind and solar power are becoming the cheapest forms of new electricity. So if you are going to make a case that future US fossil fuel consumption will recover to a new peak, you won’t get help from coal.
Oil. Why did US consumption of oil stop growing? And when did it stop growing? As suggested previously on the blog, US oil consumption can be broken into roughly two quite distinct eras. The first was the adoption era in which the economy, population, and oil-based industry grew uninterrupted until the late 1970’s. Since then, US oil consumption not grown, but rather, oscillated. This should be more accurately called the dependency era. As such, the last 30-40 years have been a time of complacency and risk for the global oil industry because the US has been, for all that time, a dependable market for oil but not a growth market for oil. That technology has finally found a way to start eating at the margins of this dependency presents a very dangerous moment for oil producers. There is risk that as the acceleration of EV adoption really takes off, that US oil consumption could enter decline as early as 2020. Many will disagree. But of those who disagree: would you be willing to explain how US oil consumption will break out of its dependency phase, and enter a new growth phase, something it’s failed to do for decades?
Also at Gregor: