As we reported in March, coal currently accounts for less than 40% of US electricity production. But now new research from IHS CERA reveals that coal use in the US has dropped to the lowest level since 1949, as the nation switches to natural gas and cleaner, cheaper alternatives. This year, US utilities firms are forecast to burn 808 million tons of coal, a 13% decline from last year and the fewest tons since 1992. Amazingly, this is the lowest level of coal-produced electricity since the government began collecting this data in 1949, but what’s even more impressive is the speed at which it is happening. Four years ago, the amount of electricity that came from coal was 50% and by 2020, it is expected to account for just 30% of the country’s power supply.
So what is taking over from coal? Unfortunately, solar and wind energy aren’t the only energy sources that are replacing coal – natural gas is picking up a lot of the slack. Utilities have been embracing natural gas due to its low costs and large reserves. Overall, natural gas will be used to produce 29% of the country’s electricity this year, which is a 9% increase from four years ago. Nuclear power makes up 20% while renewable sources make up the rest (11%).
All of this has impacted on the US coal industry as natural gas is seen as the cheaper, more environmentally friendly alternative. Unfortunately despite the coal industries best efforts, the facts (and public opinion) are going against them. This includes the statistic that coal-burning plants produce more than 90 times as much sulfur dioxide, five times as much nitrogen oxide and twice as much carbon dioxide as those that run on natural gas.
The EPA has also made it more difficult for new coal plants to be built by issuing new guidelines in March that would limit greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants as early as 2013. These new rules will mean that no new coal plants will be built unless they develop a cost-effective way to capture carbon dioxide. Give yourself a pat on the back, USA! By reducing the level of coal being burned, you are making a cleaner, greener country. Now to reduce the levels of natural gas being used…