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Coal explained Use of coal

In 2020, about 477 million short tons (MMst) of coal were consumed in the United States. On an energy content basis, this amount was equal to about 9.2 quadrillion British thermal units (Btu) and to about 10% of total U.S. energy consumption. This was the lowest amount and the lowest percentage share of total U.S. annual energy consumption since at least 1949. Although coal use was once common in the industrial, transportation, residential, and commercial sectors, today the main use of coal in the United States is to generate electricity. The electric power sector has accounted for the majority of U.S. coal consumption since 1961.

U.S. coal consumption by consuming sector by amount and percentage share of total coal consumption in 2020 was:1

  • Electric power—436.5 MMst—91.5%
  • Industrial total—40.0 MMst—8.4%
    • Industrial coke plants—14.4 MMst—3.0%
    • Industrial combined heat and power—9.9 MMst—2.1%
    • Other industrial—15.7 MMst—3.3%
  • Commercial—0.8 MMst—0.2%
  • Residential and transportation—not available 2

On an energy content basis, U.S. coal consumption peaked in 2005, but the total annual tonnage of U.S. coal consumption peaked in 2007. Coal consumption declined in most years since then, mainly because of a decline in the use of coal for electricity generation.

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Electric power

Coal-fired power plants burn coal to make steam and the steam turns turbines (machines for generating rotary mechanical power) to generate electricity. Many industries and businesses have their own power plants, and some use coal to generate electricity for their own use and mostly in combined heat and power plants. Learn more about U.S. electricity generation.


Many industries use coal and coal byproducts. The concrete and paper industries burn large amounts of coal to produce heat. The steel industry uses coal indirectly as coal coke to smelt iron ore into iron to make steel. The high temperatures created by burning coal coke give steel the strength and flexibility needed for bridges, buildings, and automobiles.

did youknow


Coal is made into coal coke for producing steel.

Blast furnace in a modern steel works

Blast furnace in a modern steel works

Source: BBC (copyrighted)

Converting coal into gas and liquids

Coal can be turned into gases and liquids that can be used as fuels or processed into chemicals to make other products. These gases or liquids are sometimes called synthetic fuels or synfuels. Synthetic fuels are made by heating coal in large vessels. These fuels produce fewer air pollutants when burned than burning coal directly.

In North Dakota, the Great Plains Synfuels Plant converts coal into synthetic natural gas (syngas). Syngas produced from coal can also be used to produce electricity and hydrogen. Currently, no commercially operating facilities in the United States produce liquids from coal, but coal has been converted to liquids in South Africa for decades.

1Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Monthly Energy Review, Table 1.3 and Table 6.2, May 2021, preliminary data for 2020
2Minor amounts of coal are still consumed in the residential and transportation sectors. EIA no longer tracks coal consumption in these sectors.

Last updated: June 2, 2021