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Coal explained Use of coal

In 2019, about 539 million short tons (MMst) of coal were consumed in the United States. On an energy content basis, this amount was equal to about 11.3 quadrillion British thermal units (Btu) and to about 11% of total U.S. energy consumption. 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. (Learn more about historical U.S. energy consumption.) The electric power sector accounts for most of U.S. coal consumption.

U.S. coal consumption by consuming sector by amount and percentage share of total in 2019

  • Electric power—539.4 MMst—91.8%
  • Industrial total—47.1 MMst—8.0%
    • Industrial coke plants—17.9 MMst—3.1%
    • Industrial combined heat and power—11.2 MMst—1.9%
    • Other industrial—17.9 MMst—3.0%
  • Commercial—0.9 MMst—less than 1%
  • Residential and transportation—each less than 1 MMst—less than 1%

U.S. coal consumption peaked in 2007 and 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

Power plants make steam by burning coal, 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.

Industry

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 to make steel. Coal coke is made by baking coal in furnaces. The steel industry uses 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

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A pound of coal supplies enough electricity to power ten 100-watt light bulbs for about an hour.

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.

Last updated: June 1, 2020