Common Eco-Myth: The Whole United States is Dependent on Coal

coal barge photo

Coal barge on Ohio River, photo: MoToMo via flickr

Undoubtedly you've heard someone cite the statistic that the United States gets half its electricity from coal. It's been repeated so many times that it often goes unexamined. Which is a shame because when you look at how individual states get their electricity the nation really shows a great range of coal usage. I wouldn't go so far as to say that the national statistic is inaccurate, but it certainly blurs the details of our national energy usage to the degree that I'd categorize it as an eco-myth:Some States Are Reliant on Coal
The reality of the situation is that, based on Energy Information Agency stats, coal amounts to greater than 75% of the electric generation in ten states. That includes electricity generated by utilities, independent power providers, combined heat & power, industrial uses, etc.

West Virginia leads the pack, using coal for 98% of its electricity; Wyoming, Indiana, Kentucky, North Dakota are in the mid-90s; Ohio and Utah are in the mid-80% range; New Mexico and Iowa are a smidge above 75%.

A further fifteen states better the national average, but otherwise use a range of energy sources, even if fossil fuels still dominate. So you could say that half of the United States is actually dependent on coal.

Others Use Virtually None
At the other end of the scale, eleven states rely on coal for less than 25% of their electricity (Massachusetts, Louisiana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Hawaii, Connecticut, Alaska, Oregon, Washington), with five using less than 5%.

Maine gets just 2% of its electricity from coal the rest roughly being split evenly between natural gas (half as polluting as coal) and renewable energy/hydropower.

California uses coal for only 1% of its electricity, with natural gas providing nearly two-thirds of the rest.

Idaho has really tapped its hydropower potential (80% of its electricity), and it too relies on coal for a mere 1% of its power.

Rhode Island and Vermont, though somewhat non-representative due to population and geographic size, use no coal whatsoever—the latter using nuclear power for 80% of its power and the former entirely dependent on natural gas.

Know Your Electric Sources!
The thing to take away from this is that as a concerned consumer of electricity you really need to know where your electricity comes from. It makes a huge difference in your personal carbon footprint: It's hardly surprising based on how their electricity is generated that residents of New York, California, Vermont and Rhode Island all have very low comparative carbon footprints, while residents of Wyoming, North Dakota and Kentucky all have much higher carbon footprints than the national average.

This also makes a big difference in the carbon footprint of moving towards an electrified transportation fleet. In places with little reliance on coal then large shifts towards electric cars, motorcycles, light rail can really reduce the carbon footprint of transportation; but in places reliant on coal, such a shift may well just be shifting the source of pollution and not reducing it all that much.

Adding further nuance to this is that depending on where you live the electricity producers in your state may be buying electricity from a neighboring state or exporting it.

In short, in some places the situation is much, much worse than the sound bite stat indicates, but in others (some of which are among the nation's most populated and economically production areas) the electric situation is generally much better.

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