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United States: Coal vs. Natural Gas and Renewables

In August 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump implemented a range of measures to support the American coal industry. Over the last decade, coal consumption has declined sharply in favor of natural gas, which has been boosted by shale oil and gas production. Coal output has dropped off significantly and there is no reason yet to think it could recover. Reduced consumption of coal has led to a substantial decrease in carbon emissions, as gas‑fired power plants release considerably less CO2 when generating electricity than their coal-fired equivalents. The United States is the world’s second-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases (in absolute terms), after being overtaken by China in 2007.

Image showing coal miners in front of an American flag at an event in support of President Donald Trump’s coal policy.
Pictured here, coal miners in Sycamore, Pennsylvania attend an event in April 2017 in support of the energy policy proposed by President Donald Trump, who has promised measures that will revive the American coal industry. ©JUSTIN MERRIMAN / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / AFP

CO2 Emissions on the Decline

Energy-related CO2See Carbon Dioxid emissions1 in the United States were at their highest levels around 2005. Over the next decade, they then decreased by some 13%, back to 1995 levels, even as the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) increased by 80%2 over the same period. According to U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) projections, emissions will remain roughly stable in 2018 and 2019, as indicated in the graph below:

Energy-related CO2 emission trends in the United States (1980-2019)
 

The Fall of King Coal

30%: The share of coal in the U.S. power generation mix in 2017 (32% for natural gas).

This downward trend is due in large part to the gradual switch from coalCoal is ranked by its degree of transformation or maturity, increasing in carbon content from... to natural gas in powerIn physics, power is the amount of energy supplied by a system per unit time. In simpler terms, power can be viewed as energy output... generation. Because it was available in large quantities – generally at low cost – and provided tens of thousands of jobs, coal, along with oil, played a key role in the development of the American economy. It is still referred to as “King Coal”, inspired by Upton Sinclair’s 1917 novel of the same name. As of 1990, coal continued to account for more than half of power generation. 

Shale gasShale gas is found in deeply buried clayey sedimentary rock that is both the source rock and the reservoir for the gas... took off in the 2000s, and plants burning this cleaner, cost-effective fuelFuel is any solid, liquid or gaseous substance or material that can be combined with an oxidant... replaced aging coal-fired power plants one after another. Coal’s share in the U.S. power generation mix fell to 30.1% in 2017, surpassed by natural gas at 31.7%. However, coal still experiences seasonal spikes that sometimes nudge it ahead of natural gas, in particular due to changing weather and variations in heating and air conditioning demand.

To a lesser extent, the development of renewable energies has also contributed to a more balanced power generation mix3. Thanks to the vast amount of space in the United States available for large power generating facilities, production from wind farms doubled between 2012 and 2018 and solar output more than tripled between 2014 and 2018. But these two sources of power still account for only 7.5% of the U.S. power generation mix (6.3% from wind and 1.2% from solar). Contributions from nuclear and hydropower remain stable at 20% and 7.5%, respectively.

In this economic environment, coal production has dropped off sharply over the last ten years despite a slight recovery in 2017 due to an increase in exports, to Europe in particular. However, the EIA predicts production will start decreasing again in 20184.

The Burden of Economic Realities

Carbon emissions in the United States today equal 1995 levels despite the fact that GDP has almost doubled.

Could President Trump’s decisions revitalize the coal industry? Affirming that “Trump digs coal,” the American President has left states to set their own anti-pollution standards to protect the jobs of “our great coal miners”. In doing so, he has replaced the previous Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which gave the federal government the power to intervene at state level and potentially shut down new coal-fired power plants.

It is unclear whether Trump’s desire to “bring the coal industry back” can reverse the resource’s downward trend given the economic realities. The number of coal-fired power plants has decreased from 580 in 2010 to 350 at the beginning of 2018. At least 40 more are planning to close or to slow production by 2025. The industry employed 80,000 people in 2010 versus around 50,000 in 2018. In addition, many U.S. states and cities have active environmental policies that focus investment on other energy sources.

 

Sources: 

(1) Emissions resulting from the combustion of fossil fuels for energy production, industry, housing and transportation, accounting for 95% of total CO2 emissions in the United States.