Despite the Trump Administration’s efforts to prolong the life of coal in the United States, the industry seems to be on an inevitable decline.
According to statistics released recently by the U.S. Environmental Information Administration (EIA), coal consumption in the United States is on track to reach its lowest level in almost 40 years.
The EIA’s 2018 October Monthly Energy Review, the most recent for which data is available, projects total 2018 coal consumption to reach 691 million short tons. That would be a 4 percent drop from last year and the lowest level since 1971. It would be a whopping 44 percent drop from the peak of consumption reached in 2007.
A number of factors have contributed to coal's decline. Environmental regulations and the growth of renewable energy have increased pressure on the industry. Perhaps the greatest threat to coal has been the falling cost and increased production of natural gas.
The Trump Administration has attempted to shield and resurrect the industry by reversing some of the environmental restrictions imposed during the Obama Administration, but these policy changes do not look like they will be enough to reverse the trend.
The industry has responded to the changing energy market by retiring many of its plants. According to the same EIA report, plant retirements representing 11 gigawatts (GW) of coal-fired generating capacity occurred in the first three quarters of 2018, and another 3 GW of capacity were expected to be retired by the end of the year. This would mean 2018 have seen the second most coal plant retirements in history behind 2015, which saw 15 GW of capacity retired. The retirements began in earnest about six years ago. More than 10 GW of capacity were retired in 2012. Another 4 GW of capacity are expected to be retired in 2019.
The electric power sector is the nation’s largest consumer of coal, accounting for 93 percent of total U.S. coal consumption between 2007 and 2018. However, coal now accounts for just under 30 percent of total U.S. electricity generation. Historically, it has been the primary source at over 50 percent.