A third of all US coal generation occurs in just five states

From West Virginia to Vermont, many states in the United States are at different stages in the transition away from coal.

In last week’s post, I looked at the transformation that has occurred in the United States’ electricity sector over the last decade. Today’s post will again look at the United States but I will hone in on the situation in individual states. I do not have the time to do a detailed overview of the electricity sector in all 50 states, so instead I will just analyse one metric: coal generation.

Warning: there are a lot of numbers in this post.

Much like in Australia, there is significant variation in coal generation by state in the United States. On the low end, Rhode Island and Vermont have been coal free for over a decade. On the high end, West Virginia has sourced over 90% of its electricity from coal for the last decade.

But let’s start in 2010.

In 2010, 45% of the United States’ electricity was from coal and 48 out of 50 states burned coal (the aforementioned Rhode Island and Vermont were the only two that didn’t). 

10 states were heavily reliant on coal, using it for over 70% of their electricity. Theses states were West Virginia (97%) and Kentucky (93%) in the Appalachian Mountains, the industrial mid-western states of Indiana (90%), Ohio (82%), Missouri (81%) and Iowa (72%), and the sparsely populated Western states of Wyoming (89%), North Dakota (82%) and Utah (81%). New Mexico (71%) in the south-west rounds out the top 10.

17 states generated between 40% and 69% of their electricity from coal, including large states like Michigan (59%), North Carolina (56%), Georgia (53%), Pennsylvania (48%) and Illinois (47%).

9 states used coal for between 20% and 39% of their electricity, including Arizona (39%), Texas (37%), Virginia (35%) and Florida (26%). 

Finally, 12 states sourced less than 20% of their electricity from coal, including New York (10%) and California (1%). Plus there were the two coal free states.

Between 2010 and 2019, the situation changed dramatically. The overall proportion of US electricity from coal almost halved to 24%. By 2019 47 states still burned coal, with Massachusetts being the only state to end coal burning over the last decade. But almost all states had reduced coal burning (the exceptions being Alaska and Maine, which already used very little coal to begin with).

12 states have substantially reduced the proportion of their electricity sourced from coal by over 30%. The most impressive changes occurred in Ohio and Delaware. Ohio, a large industrial mid-western state, had been the fourth most coal-reliant state in the country in 2010 but with a huge 43% reduction in the proportion of coal generation, Ohio now relies on coal for just 39% of its electricity. The tiny east coast state of Delaware also experienced a 43% reduction but because its coal use was much lower than Ohio to begin with, its coal use is now very close to zero (2%).

Other large coal users have also undergone a big drop in coal use such as Iowa (down 35%), Kansas (down 34%) and Indiana (down 31%). Large states like Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia and Pennsylvania also saw substantial declines in coal use, as did smaller states like Maryland, Oklahoma and Tennessee.

On the flip side, 12 other states experienced very underwhelming declines in coal use. This doesn’t include Alaska (up 1%) and Maine (up 0.3%), which both saw a marginal increase in coal reliance. Of those 12 states, six already had very low coal use in 2010 (Idaho, California, Washington, Oregon, Connecticut and New Jersey) so there really wasn’t much further for coal use to fall in these states.

However four heavily coal-reliant states also had unusually small declines in coal use. These states were Wyoming (down 5%), West Virginia (down 6%), Missouri (down 9%) and Nebraska (down 9%).

So how do the states compare now?

In 2019, there were just four states that still sourced over 70% of their electricity from coal (down from 10 states in 2010) and just eight states sourced between 40% and 69% of their electricity from coal (down from 17 states in 2010).

23 states now rely on coal for less than 20% of their electricity (up from 12 in 2010), plus there are three coal free states. The other 12 states are between 20% and 39%.

In 2019, the four most coal-reliant states were West Virginia (91%) and Kentucky (73%) in the Appalachian Mountains, Missouri (73%) in the industrial mid-west and Wyoming (84%) in the west. Utah (65%) and North Dakota (63%) were fifth and sixth.

Of the twelve largest states by population (with more than eight million people), Ohio (39%), Michigan (32%) and Illinois (27%) were the only states where coal-reliance was above the national average of 24% in 2019. 

North Carolina (23%), Georgia (20%), Texas (19%) and Pennsylvania (17%) all had a below average reliance on coal, while Florida (9%), Virginia (4%), New Jersey (2%), New York (0.3%) and California (0.1%) are all getting very close to phasing out coal completely.

As an Australian, I find these numbers striking. The fact that the four most populous states in the United States (California, Texas, Florida and New York) source 0.1%, 19%, 9% and 0.3% respectively of their electricity from coal highlights just how exposed Australia is to coal, with Australia’s three largest states reliant on coal for over 70% of their electricity.

Of the 50 states in the United States, 46 are less reliant on coal than Australia’s three biggest states. In fact, if New South Wales were a part of the United States, it would be the third most coal-reliant state in the whole country! Add in Queensland and Victoria, and Australia’s three biggest states would all be in the top seven most coal-reliant states in the United States (refer to Table 1). 

Table 1.  The most coal reliant states in the United States and Australia.

State:Proportion of electricity from coal in 2019:
West Virginia91%
New South Wales76.8%

Until now, this post has focused exclusively on the proportion of coal use for electricity generation by state. But I will conclude this post with a brief look at the gross amount of coal use by state. Why does this matter? Well, some small states may get a large proportion of their electricity from coal but they may use a lower quantity of coal than a much bigger state with a lower proportion of coal use.

Take the examples of Texas and Wyoming. Wyoming gets 84% of its electricity from coal while Texas gets just 19% of its electricity from coal. But whereas Texas is the second most populous state in the US with over 28 million people, Wyoming is the least populous state with a bit over 500,000 people – its population is fifty times smaller than Texas. Wyoming sourced over 34,000MWh of electricity from coal and Texas sourced over 91,000MWh. So despite Texas being significantly less reliant on coal than Wyoming, it actually burnt almost three times more coal than Wyoming.

When looking at the gross amount of coal use, Texas burns more coal than any other state in the United States. In fact, a third of all the country’s coal burnt for energy generation occurs in just five states. As well as Texas, Indiana, West Virginia, Missouri and Kentucky collectively produce 33% of all the United States’ coal fired electricity. If the United States is to rapidly reduce emissions from the electricity sector by phasing out coal in coming years, these are the five states that will bear the brunt of the transition.

Table 2. List of states in the United States, comparing the proportion of electricity generation from coal in 2010, 2015 and 2019 and how it has changed. Sorted by 2019 coal generation.

State:2010 % coal2015 % coal2019 % coalChange from 2010 to 2019
West Virginia96.70%94.10%91%-5.70%
North Dakota81.90%74.60%62.80%-19.10%
New Mexico70.70%62.50%41.80%-28.90%
United States – total44.80%33.20%23.50%-21.30%
North Carolina55.90%31.10%23.30%-32.60%
South Dakota32.80%15.50%20.80%-12.00%
South Carolina36.20%23.40%14.80%-21.40%
New Hampshire13.90%4.70%1.90%-12.00%
New Jersey9.80%2.40%1.50%-8.30%
New York9.90%1.70%0.30%-9.60%
Massachusetts19.40%7%Coal free-19.40%
Rhode IslandCoal freeCoal freeCoal free
VermontCoal freeCoal freeCoal free

All data on electricity generation in the United States was calculated from the United States Energy Information Administration’s Electricity Data Browser.

Data on Australian electricity generation used in this post was calculated from the Federal Government’s Australian Energy Statistics – Table O, released in May 2020.

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