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Despite recent reports of coal-fired power plants shutting down and states moving away from coal as a generation source, it seems the nation’s dominant source of fuel for generating electricity will be around for years to come. In the national dialogue about energy use and the push toward renewable power, small change can carry oversized implications.
Reports indicate that the nation’s support of coal had lessened, with a slight decline in the number of coal mines and the total output of coal for the United States in 2010. For clean-air advocates and renewable-energy proponents, the numbers could be interpreted as a sign that the coal industry is finally contracting in the face of the growing juggernaut of solar, wind and geothermal. However, a recent report indicates coal is nothing less than a mountain on the landscape, and other sources of power are mere boulders on its slopes.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) “Annual Energy Outlook 2011,” coal remains the largest source of electricity generation in the United States and will retain that distinction through the report’s horizon of 2035. The report’s results are not all black and white. It projects the construction of few new coal-fired plants; however, it projects an increase in coal generation of 25 percent from 2009 to 2035, largely from increased use of existing capacity.
The report includes several different scenarios, which account for external factors, such as environmental regulations that could affect the coal industry. Even in the most extreme scenario, the EIA predicts coal will continue to account for the largest share of electricity generation in the United States.
Recognizing the growing role of other fuel sources, the report projects the overall share of coal in the total generation mix to fall from 45 percent to 43 percent. It projects renewable sources to grow by 72 percent. However, even with that tremendous growth, the renewables’ share of total generation will only increase from 11 percent in 2009 to 14 percent in 2035.
So, according to the EIA, even though the United States will see a reduction in coal plants, the nation will see only a minor decrease in coal usage, as existing coal plants will need to increase production to account for increased demand. However, some measures are being enacted to reduce new coal plants.