Coal Consumption Falls to a 40 Year Low

Written by SK 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.