Coal Consumption Falls to a 40 Year Low

JM Ashby
Written by JM Ashby

According to new survey data just released by the federal Energy Information Administration (EIA), coal consumption in the United States has now fallen to its lowest level since 1979.

There is no anti-coal conspiracy at play here, just the simple fact that coal is facing competition from other sources of energy that are both cleaner and cheaper.

EIA expects total U.S. coal consumption in 2018 to fall to 691 million short tons (MMst), a 4% decline from 2017 and the lowest level since 1979. U.S. coal consumption has been falling since its peak in 2007, and EIA forecasts that 2018 coal consumption will be 437 MMst (44%) lower than 2007 levels, mainly driven by declines in coal use in the electric power sector.

The electric power sector is the nation’s largest consumer of coal, accounting for 93% of total U.S. coal consumption between 2007 and 2018. The decline in coal consumption since 2007 is the result of both the retirements of coal-fired power plants and the decreases in the capacity factors, or utilization, of coal plants as increased competition from natural gas and renewable sources have reduced coal’s market share.

In closely-related news, the Colorado-based Xcel Energy company, which supplies millions of households in eight states, has just committed to using 100 percent clean energy by 2050, though it probably won't take that long given current trends.

Xcel Energy, which provides electricity to 3.6 million customers in eight states, has become the first major U.S. utility committed to delivering 100 percent carbon-free power by 2050.

Equally remarkable, the plan Xcel announced on Tuesday promises an 80 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions (from 2005 levels) by 2030. The company stated that “its 2030 goal can be achieved affordably with renewable energy and other technologies currently available.”

Xcel, Colorado’s largest utility, made its announcement to go carbon free at Denver’s Museum of Nature and Science. CEO Ben Fowke told reporters, “This risk of climate change isn’t going away and we want to be the company that does something about it and hopefully inspire others to do something about it too.”

At some point in the not-too-distant future, even natural gas is going to see its market share decline the way the coal industry has.

It's not hard to picture a near future in which politicians pander to the natural gas industry with promises of dramatic rescues and deregulation the same way modern Republicans have long pandered to the coal industry.

Nothing Republicans have ever promised has come true. I don't know what's going to happen to Appalachia when the last coal plant closes, but it feels like too much to hope they'll finally appreciate that Republicans lied to them for decades.

  • muselet

    This is undoubtedly good news. A major utility recognizes global warming as a universal threat and is taking steps to reduce its carbon footprint. Good for Xcel Energy.

    On the other hand, Kevin Drum isn’t wrong: we need a technological miracle to deal with climate change because, as he says:

    “[T]here’s still no real willingness to reduce fossil fuel use anywhere. Not if it costs more than a trivial few cents anyway, and even at that it’s hard to get the public to approve it unless that cost is buried somewhere.

    Sorry to be a wet blanket.


    • Draxiar

      I think the majority of people don’t appreciate the differences between cost and worth.

      Cost can be seen two ways: the money spent to do something(s) and the consequences of not doing that thing(s). Worth is the value you get from something which can include an uncountable number of residual benefits which can be unquantifiable.

      Many people only see the upfront money cost of something in dollar signs but often fail to see the cost of not doing it and the overall worth of it.

      The cost of converting the country- heck, the world- to 100% sustainable energy is significant…shocking and daunting even. The cost of not doing that is terrifying. The worth of doing it makes cost of doing and not doing almost insignificant.

    • JMAshby

      He’s not necessarily wrong, I just think the transition is already happening and few people are even noticing.

      Not to go all Free Market Jesus here, but the market is driving out the dirtiest forms of energy.

  • Badgerite

    Ocassio-Cortez has the right idea. A Green New Deal. This is doable and it can be done in such a way as to benefit all regions including coal country. Retraining. Rebuilding state and national infrastructures can benefit West Virginia as well as anywhere else. I think she and Manchin should get together and work on some concrete ideas.

    • muselet

      That’s not a bad idea at all.

      It’s also pretty much what Hillary Clinton ran on in 2016, and look how well she did in coal country.


      • Badgerite

        “Sometimes you gotta repeat yourself just to get your point across. Repeat yourself”.
        Bruce Hornsby – Spider Fingers.
        This is urgent. We, as a society, have to get going on this. It is doable.
        It is beneficial to everyone. I like the idea and I especially like the phrase Green New Deal because it indicates it is about employment and construction jobs and industry as well as about a cleaner environment and more reliable energy system that cannot really be monopolized or price rigged either by foreign nations or domestically. And that would be exceptionally good for commerce in this country. And it leaves no one out. Not coal country. Not anyone.
        Additionally I am not saying Ocassio-Cortez should run for the presidency or anything. She needs experience and time to get a handle on Washington, I think. But I like the idea. And I like the phrase as a slogan for the idea. Like voting rights, this should be a major plank of the Democratic party platform and focus on providing jobs in a new industry as well as tradition industries for those construction workers and others who are feeling like industries they are in are dying or moving elsewhere.
        Hillary Clinton wasn’t wrong about this.

  • Aynwrong

    I suspect people who were born and raised in “Trump country” aren’t psychologically prepared to accept such a reality. Especially not when you consider the four truly horrifying words they would inevitably have to confront.

    “The liberals were right.”