The remote location of most United States lignite deposits with respect to major markets and the relatively low calorific value of lignite have prevented, until recently, any significant growth in demand. Unprecedented demands for electric power and recent innovations in its transmission now enable lignite to share with other coals in this growth market. This is particularly true as oil and natural gas resources in the United States decrease and become more difficult to find. Whereas the total reported shipments of lignite had fluctuated between 2.9 and 4.4 million short tons in the decade before 1968, shipments by 1975 had increased significantly to about 19.8 million short tons. The 1975 figure, however, reflects the production of Texas, which was not included in the data for 1956–1968.
In 1975, approximately 4.2 million short tons of U.S. lignite was consumed annually in markets other than electricity—for example, in residential, commercial, and industrial establishments and as a raw material for producing barbeque briquettes, montan wax, and activated char. Although not economically feasible at this time, processes have been developed in which lignite also can be used for the production of chemicals, high-Btu gases, liquid fuels, fertilizers, specialty carbons, and as a reductant for preparation of taconite pellets.
Reserves of lignite are adequate to meet substantial increases in demand, and the costs of recovering the reserves are among the lowest in the United States compared to the costs of recovering reserves of other types of energy. In the immediate future, additional demand for lignite will depend essentially on its increased use to generate electric power. In the long range, nuclear power may limit increases in demand for lignite for power generation. Growth in the utilization of lignite may then depend on the development of the new markets or new products from lignite, such as synthetic fuels. The present United States oil and natural gas shortage also will increase the demand for lignite.