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Coal Accounts for Less than 40% of U.S. Electricity Production in 2011, Lowest Level in Over 30 years
Posted By Charley Cameron On March 12, 2012 @ 7:12 pm In Air quality,environmental destruction,News,Renewable Energy | 1 Comment
The Energy Information Administration  has released data  to show that in 2011, coal power made up less than 40% of all U.S. electricity. As coal-fueled electric dropped to 30 year  lows last year, the profoundly dirty fuel rounded out its year in decline by providing its lowest monthly rates of power production since March 1978. With coal plants shuttering their doors and production down, this looks like great news. But before we get too excited, the EIA attributes the drop in coal usage to a mild winter and a decline in the prices of less-than-environmentally-friendly natural gas (a.k.a. that stuff we’re fracking  for).
Image via EIA 
There’s no doubt that a decrease in coal usage is a good thing; the burning of coal  releases mercury into the atmosphere and pollutes our waters, while the smoke causes all manner of health problems, not to mention the environmental impact of coal mining itself . Campaigns to end coal mining in the United States have been gaining ground; one of the most prominent campaigns, by the Sierra Club recently enjoyed a $50 million boost  from Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Meanwhile new regulations  from the EPA to reduce toxic emissions from coal plants have forced some utility companies  to shut down coal-powered operations.
So as coal usage in power production declined from 46% for 2010 to 39% in 2011, natural gas usage rose from 22% to 26% — this in the context of an overall drop in electricity consumption of 7%, that mild winter which the EIA referred to. The EIA also notes  that “Natural gas combined-cycle units operate at higher efficiency than do older, coal-fired units, which increases the competitiveness of natural gas relative to coal.”
While natural gas is commonly perceived as a less-environmentally damaging energy source than coal or oil, a fuel which emits fewer greenhouse gasses when burned, the process of extracting the gas comes with a very significant footprint. A report last year entitled Methane and the greenhouse-gas footprint of natural gas from shale formations posed that  “Compared to coal, the [greenhouse gas] footprint of shale gas is at least 20% greater and perhaps more than twice as great on the 20-year horizon and is comparable when compared over 100 years.”
So there are a few reasons why we can’t quite cheer the decline of toxic coal yet. Firstly, we still produce the vast majority of our power from the stuff. While coal usage dropped from 46% in 2010 to 39% for 2011, it still vastly outproduces both of its nearest alternatives: nuclear power and natural gas. Secondly, renewable energy sources such as solar — still notably categorized as “other” by the EIA, held steady as producing 6% of electricity  for both years. Less coal certainly means fewer toxins in our atmosphere, but while utility companies continue to reach for fossil fuels  over renewable sources, the environmental impact will still be significant.
Via TreeHugger 
Lead image © flickr user lowjumpingfrog 
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URL to article: http://inhabitat.com/coal-accounts-for-less-than-40-of-u-s-electricity-production-in-2011-lowest-level-in-over-30-years/
URLs in this post:
 Image: http://inhabitat.com/coal-accounts-for-less-than-40-of-u-s-electricity-production-in-2011-lowest-level-in-over-30-years/coal-power-produced-less-than-40-percent-of-electric-for-2011/
 Energy Information Administration: http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=5331&src=email
 released data: http://www.treehugger.com/fossil-fuels/2011-coal-produced-less-40-us-electricity-first-time-30-years.html
 30 year: http://inhabitat.com/coal-electricity-production-drops-to-its-lowest-point-in-30-years/
 fracking: http://inhabitat.com/oil-shale-development-in-the-west-threatens-hundreds-of-thousands-of-acres-of-wildlife/
 Image: http://inhabitat.com/coal-accounts-for-less-than-40-of-u-s-electricity-production-in-2011-lowest-level-in-over-30-years/2011-coal-makes-up-less-than-40-percent-of-nations-energy-2-2/
 burning of coal: http://beyondcoal.org/dirty-truth
 itself: http://inhabitat.com/new-study-links-mountaintop-removal-to-60000-cases-of-cancer-in-appalachia/
 boost: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/22/nyregion/bloomberg-donates-50-million-to-sierra-club-coal-campaign.html
 regulations: http://inhabitat.com/coal-and-natural-gas-industries-stand-off-over-new-epa-mercury-regulations/
 utility companies: http://inhabitat.com/midwest-utilities-to-shutter-10-fossil-fuel-powered-plants-in-response-to-new-regulations/
 posed that: http://inhabitat.com/study-shows-natural-gas-fracking-is-more-harmful-than-coal/
 electricity: http://inhabitat.com/self-storage-facilities-choose-to-embrace-green-energy-practices/
 fossil fuels: http://inhabitat.com/the-worlds-oceans-are-acidifying-faster-than-in-the-past-300-million-years/
 lowjumpingfrog: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jenorton/4430473232/sizes/l/in/photostream/
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