Daily Environment Repost

Coal slumps as renewable energy surges

Renewable energy sources like solar and wind outperformed coal in U.S. energy consumption during 2019; an event that has not happened in 130 years. But coal use has steadily declined for six straight years despite efforts to prop it up. The Trump administration relaxed regulations on discharging mercury into the environment to subsidize coal production, but this didn’t stop the coal slump. 

Coal consumption in 2019 fell by 15 percent, and renewables rose by one percent. The coal slump has been rapid, with its share of the electricity generation market falling from about 50 percent to 23 percent in the last decade. The U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts that renewables may beat out coal again in 2020, so the decline will continue.

Countries like the United Kingdom and Germany are actively winding down the use of coal as an energy source. The USA has managed to achieve its reduction while actively campaigning for growth in the coal sector. However, it seems coal’s decline ties directly to economic forces that make it uncompetitive.

The economics

Electricity is the magic elixir of our modern civilization. Fly over a major city at night and imagine the chaos if the electricity disappeared and the lights went out. But electricity produced from coal is more expensive than electricity from other sources like natural gas, wind, solar, or nuclear. So, as demand rises and falls, coal powered plants are the first plants turned off, and the last turned back on.

Hundreds of coal plants shuttered their doors over the past decade, and 13 closures have been announced for 2020 so far. Many of these coal plants are aging, in need of upgrades, and costly to run. But as coal consumption declines, natural gas and renewables step in to fill the gap. During the past two decades, wind and solar provided the most significant increases in renewable U.S. electricity generation. They moved from negligible contributions in 2000 to about 50 percent of the renewable energy generation in 2019.

Coal is on the way out, we are seeing the end of coal…We aren’t going to see a big resurgence in coal generation, the trend is pretty clear,” is how energy analyst Dennis Wamsted described the situation in an article by Oliver Milman.

While we probably won’t see a resurgence, the coal industry’s demise is still not on the near-future horizon. The international export of coal and demand for coal in the steel industry provides a viable market for coal. Additionally, long term contracts with some coal power plants, particularly in rural areas, will sustain some level of coal demand in the U.S. electricity generation business.

The future 

The coal slump over the past decade does not bode well for the future of this energy source. Despite the efforts of the current administration to prop up the coal industry, it is in decline. Coal is a dirtier energy source than the others, and pressures to reduce carbon emissions will continue to hurt coal. However, coal will still play a part in the future of U.S. energy. Albeit, its future role will fall short of its former glory.

The basic fact is that coal often can’t compete with other energy sources. The free market is speaking. The government should listen. It is also incorrect to point at government subsidies for clean energy as a false market unless we require fossil fuels to be used with zero emissions. Allowing emissions is an environmental subsidy to fossil fuels. By not having to deal with emission mitigation, companies can raise their profits. The final cost of these emissions does not go away. Indeed, it is simply deferred and passed on for future generations


Can we quit fossil fuels? (Source: ArcheanWeb) – https://archeanweb.com/2020/01/23/can-we-quit-fossil-fuels/  Also:

Controlling your carbon footprint – Sort of (Source: ArcheanWeb) – https://archeanweb.com/2020/02/03/controlling-your-carbon-footprint-sort-of/  Also:


Renewables surpass coal in US energy generation for first time in 130 years (By Oliver Milman; The Guardian) – https://grist.org/energy/renewables-surpass-coal-in-us-energy-generation-for-first-time-in-130-years/  Also:

U.S. renewable energy consumption surpasses coal for the first time in over 130 years  (Source: U.S Energy Information Administration) – https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=43895&src=email#  Also:

Coal’s Decline Continues with 13 Plant Closures Announced in 2020 (By  Benjamin Storrow; E&E News) –  https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/coals-decline-continues-with-13-plant-closures-announced-in-2020/  Also:

Electricity explained
Electricity in the United States (Source: U.S Energy Information Administration) – https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/electricity/electricity-in-the-us.php

Feature Image: Power County wind farm (Modified) – By ENERGY.GOV – Flickr, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24103533  

William House
William is an earth scientist and writer with an interest in providing the science "backstory" for breaking environmental, earth science, and climate change news.