U.S. coal for electricity plummets to 45-year low

Pocahontas Coal Plant in Eastgulf, Raleigh County, West Virginia.

The amount of coal used for electricity generation in the United States has sunk to a 45-year low. In 1970, the last year that the percentage of coal use compared to other energy inputs like natural gas, nuclear, wind and solar energy was this paltry, President Richard Nixon was in his second year of office, Blood, Sweat and Tears won the Grammy for Album of the Year, and Midnight Cowboy became the only X-rated film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), coal-fired power plants produced just 29 percent of U.S. electricity in November, compared to 35 percent last July and 39 percent for all of 2014. “Coal generation is about as low as it’s ever been,” EIA analyst Glenn McGrath told Climate Central, in a story carried by Scientific American. “It’s never been that low for a particular month.”

A graph from the EIA shows coal power generation dipping below 100 million megawatt hours on a monthly basis, with the trend line dropping steadily since 2007. In comparison electricity from natural gas, a substitute fuel for utilities, increased during the same time period, as shale gas production in the U.S. ramped up, causing prices to fall. The EIA shows coal consumption dropped 24 percent between November 2014 and November 2015, while natural gas use increased 21 percent.

Coal generation is about as low as it’s ever been. It’s never been that low for a particular month.

In 2015, for the first time in U.S. history, power plants running on natural gas produced more electricity than those running on coal. Older coal power plants are being retired due to the high cost of meeting environmental regulations being trumpeted by the Obama Administration. But according to McGrath, the Administration’s climate change plan bears less blame for coal’s demise than economics.

“The Clean Power Plan hasn’t even hit [utilities] yet,” McGrath was quoted saying. “Gas is just dirt cheap, it’s that simple. It’s probably unprecedented to see, on a Btu (British thermal unit) basis, to see gas undercut coal. Gas has been taking coal’s share away for a while.”

According to the EIA, at the start of the gas fracking boom, natural gas prices were at $13 per million Btu, then fell to $2/MBtu, before jumping again in 2014. Prices have since fallen again, reaching a bottom of $1.68 in December, as a warm U.S. winter has crimped demand and failed to draw down inventories that have been in storage since the summer.

Image by Magnolia677