March 1, 2018, by Justin Fox
Economic growth picked up a little in the U.S. in 2017. But electricity use fell, according to data released Tuesday by the Energy Information Administration. It’s now been basically flat for more than a decade:
Measured on a per-capita basis, electricity use is in clear decline, and is already back to the levels of the mid-1990s.
I constructed these charts to go all the way back to 1949 in part because I can (that’s how far back the EIA data series goes) but also because it makes clear what a momentous change this is. Electricity use rose and rose and rose and then … it didn’t anymore.
Slower economic growth since 2007 has been part of the reason, but the 2017 numbers make clear that higher gross domestic product no longer necessarily requires more electricity. I wrote a column last year about this big shift, and there’s not a whole lot new to say about what’s causing it: mainly increased energy efficiency (driven to a remarkable extent by the rise of LED light bulbs), and the continuing migration of economic activity away from making tangible things and toward providing services and virtual products such as games and binge-watchable TV series (that are themselves consumed on ever-more-energy-efficient electronic devices). What’s worth going over, though, is what this means for those in the business of generating electricity. The Donald Trump administration has made saving coal-fired electric plants a big priority; the struggles of nuclear power plants have sparked concern from multiple quarters. Meanwhile, U.S. natural gas production has grown by more than 40 percent since 2007, thanks to hydraulic fracturing and other new drilling techniques, while wind and solar keep making big gains in cost and market share. And this is all happening within the context of a no-growth electricity market.
Here are the five main sources of electric power in the U.S.:
The big story over the past decade has been coal and natural gas trading places as the top fuel for electricity generation. Over the past year and a half coal regained some of that lost ground as natural gas prices rose from the lows of early 2016. But with overall electricity use flat and production from wind and solar on the rise, that hasn’t translated into big increases in coal-generated power.
Oh, and about solar. It’s only a major factor in a few states (California especially), so it doesn’t make the top five. But it’s definitely on the rise.
What happens next? For power generators, the best bet for breaking out of the current no-growth pattern is to electrify more of the U.S. economy, especially transportation. A big part of the attraction of electric cars and trucks for policy-makers and others is their potential to be emissions-free. But they’re only really emissions-free if the electricity used to charge them is generated in an emissions-free manner — creating a pretty strong business case for continuing “decarbonization” of the electric industry. It’s conceivable that electric car batteries could even assist in that decarbonization by storing the intermittent power generated by wind and solar and delivering it back onto the grid when needed.
I don’t know exactly how all this will play out. Nobody does. But the business of generating electricity isn’t going back to its pre-2008 normal.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.