11 Maps That Explain Energy In America

Most people don’t give too much thought to where their electricity comes from. Flip a switch, and the lights go on. That’s all. The origins of that energy, or how it actually got into our homes, is generally hidden from view.

Yet the makeup of America’s energy infrastructure matters enormously — it’s at the heart of everything from President Obama’s upcoming rules on climate change to the endless squabbling over the Keystone XL pipeline. So if you’re curious to see what that infrastructure actually looks like, check out this fascinating map tool from the Energy Information Administration. It lets you explore every power plant, coal mine, oil well, and pipeline in the country.

Below, I’ve pulled out 11 maps that give a particularly good overview of America’s energy landscape, circa 2015. (Apologies upfront for excluding Alaska and Hawaii, you can see those on EIA’s page.)

1) Coal still provides 34 percent of electricity — but it’s declining fast

This first map shows every coal-fired power plant in the contiguous United States:

EIA-coal-power-plants1(Energy Information Administration)
Coal power plants in the United States.

Not too long ago, King Coal was the dominant source of power in the United States, in part because it was so cheap. In 2003, there were 629 coal plants providing fully half the nation’s electricity.

But coal has been dying out since then. As of 2015, there were just 491 coal plants left, providing just 34 percent of our electricity. And more retirements are coming. Coal is still our biggest single source of electricity, but it’s clearly on the wane.

What happened? For one, the fracking boom in the late 2000s flooded the country with cheap natural gas (a cleaner competitor to coal), and many electric utilities have been switching over. Then, during the Obama years, the EPA cracked down further on mercury, sulfur, and other pollution from coal — the dirtiest of all energy sources and a major contributor to global warming. In addition, the Sierra Club has been waging an effective campaign to persuade utility regulators to retire their coal plants by 2020 rather than incur endless cleanup costs.

As a result, utilities have been closing dozens of their oldest, dirtiest, and least-efficient coal plants, with more closures yet to come (here’s a comprehensive casualty list). And as a final blow, next week the EPA will finalize sweeping climate rules to limit carbon dioxide from US power plants. No surprise the agency expects coal’s share of US electricity to fall to 30 percent by 2030, maybe even lower.

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