Sustainability Energy

America’s demand for coal drops to new low

Coal-fired power plant in Utah
Pieces of coal sit on the side of the road leading to PacifiCorp’s Hunter coal-fired power plant outside of Castle Dale, Utah on Nov. 14, 2019. The 1,577 Megawatt power plant opened in 1978 and is one of the largest coal-fired plants in the western United States. Getty

Story at a glance

  • America is using less coal than it has in decades.
  • Since 2017, 15 percent of coal power plants in the U.S. have been retired.
  • Renewable energy sources could overtake coal’s remaining market share in coming years, as states like Texas and California are pushing hard to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels for power generation.

U.S. power plants are expected to burn less coal in 2020 than they have in 42 years, according to new government projections. The amount of coal used to generate electricity next year is predicted to decrease by 14 percent to 545.8 million metric tons, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Coal’s steep decline has continued despite President Donald Trump’s attempts to revive the industry by relaxing or eliminating environmental regulations, CNN reports. Since 2016, coal consumption for power generation has fallen 27 percent. 

At the federal level, President Trump is withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement, but many states are still aggressively pursuing renewable energy in an attempt to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. In aggregate, these efforts are steering the country away from coal. Efforts in the two most populous states are driving the trend, with Texas and California set to account for 22 and 14 percent, respectively, of the nation’s non-hydroelectric renewable energy production in 2020.

“The U.S. power sector’s move away from coal is contributing significantly to decreases in U.S. coal production,” Linda Capuano, the EIA’s administrator, wrote in the report.

Cheaper, cleaner burning natural gas and increasingly affordable renewable energy have been coal’s downfall. Renewable energy’s share of the electricity generation market is expected to grow from 17 percent to 19 percent in 2020, marching closer to overtaking coal’s remaining 22 percent share. 

Some renewables are coming close to undercutting the cost of electricity from fossil fuels. Power generated by onshore wind farms cost just 6 cents per kilowatt-hour in 2018, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IREA). The lower limit of fossil fuel energy production is roughly 5 cents per kilowatt-hour. IREA also estimates that within two years some wind and solar projects could deliver electricity for 3 cents per kilowatt hour or less. 

These economic realities have been harsh on Americans working in the coal industry, with roughly 15 percent of coal power plants having been retired since 2017, according to S&P Global Platts Analytics, with another 10 percent predicted to close down in 2019 and 2020.

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