Bobby Magill for Climate Central:
Technological progress has been brutal to the yellow pages and compact discs. Coal may be headed the same way in the U.S., partly because of the market and partly because of national climate change policy.
Coal-fired power plants are the nation’s largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions and driver of climate change, and an old technology slowly being replaced by newer, cleaner sources of energy. With solar, wind and natural gas gaining ground on the electric grid, change is in the air.
Signs of coal’s decline are written all over the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s annual coal report released this week, showing that despite a slight increase in coal consumption in 2013, coal production is down and coal mining jobs are down even more. The EIA’s 2014 coal analysis will be released at the end of this year.
For the first time since 1993, coal production in the U.S. fell below 1 billion short tons in 2013, down to about 985 million tons in 2013 from 1.01 billion in 2012. (It takes about .00054 short tons of coal to generate 1 kilowatt hour of electricity. The average home uses 10,837 kwh of electricity annually, equivalent to the power generated by 5.8 short tons of coal.)
Production in the West, where most U.S. coal is mined, dropped 2.4 percent in that time as coal mine employment fell 10.5 percent nationwide.
Despite all of that, the U.S. actually burned 4 percent more coal in 2013 than it did in 2012, helping push U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions up about 2 percent because higher natural gas prices spurred a slight uptick coal use.
Additional coal that had been mined and reserved for later use made up for the increase in coal burning while allowing for coal production to fall, EIA analyst JenAlyse Arena said.
Other EIA data released last week showed that U.S. coal production increased about 1 percent in 2014 over the previous year, but is expected to drop to 2013 levels this year and drop off even more in 2016.
Analysts say coal mining and burning is going to slide, at least for a while.
“I don’t think we ever see ourselves recovering to our peak level of production,” mainly because natural gas prices have made natural gas competitive with coal, EIA economist Mike Mellish said.
Officially, the EIA sees coal production staying flat over the next decade or so, but analysts there have not yet considered how the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan will affect coal production.
The Clean Power Plan, slated to be finalized later this year, aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions from existing coal-fired power plants by urging states to focus on generating electricity from natural gas and renewables such as wind and solar while also becoming more energy efficient.
Article continues at Climate Central.
Photo: Castle Gate coal-fired power plant near Helper, Utah. Coal-fired power plants provide about 46% of consumed electricity in the United States. (Wikipedia)