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With natural gas on the rise, U.S. market is moving against coal

The stacks from the Gavin coal burning power plant tower over the landscape on February 4, 2012 in Cheshire, Ohio.
The stacks from the Gavin coal power plant in Cheshire, Ohio. Photo: Benjamin Lowy via Getty Images

U.S. coal mines are on the decline: The Energy Information Administration is reporting that the number of active coal mines has fallen to 671 nationwide, from 1,435 in 2008.

The big picture: It's increasingly clear that the market has chosen natural gas over coal as a more affordable, more efficient power source. During the past decade, the primary factor driving the closure of 764 U.S. coal mines — most of them underground — was simply a steady decline in demand.

Details: Coal consumption, 82% of which stems from electricity generation in coal-fired power plants, has fallen to its lowest point in four decades. Spurring on the decline is a nationwide retreat by power providers from coal-fired electricity generation, which fell by a near-record 14.3 gigawatts last year.

  • While the coal industry has claimed that regulation is a major driver of coal’s decline, official projections show that U.S. coal production is now expected to fall at a greater rate than it would have under the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan.

Be smart: The Trump administration's failed attempt to block the closure of the remaining coal-fired unit in the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) Paradise Fossil Plant made little economic sense. After shutting down two other coal-fired units in the Paradise location in 2017 and replacing them with more efficient gas power generators, the TVA officially voted to close the third on Thursday. This is a trend grounded in the need for efficiency and lower operations and maintenance costs associated with coal units.

What to watch: Now at just 691 million tons, U.S. coal consumption is expected to continue declining, down from 29% to 2% of total electricity production by 2035. This generating capacity will be replaced mostly by less expensive natural gas power plants, whose share is expected to rise from 30% to 37% over the same time period.

The bottom line: With electricity power providers seeking cleaner, more cost-competitive options and the shale revolution unlocking new natural gas reserves, the market — if left alone — will continue to replace coal with natural gas as the dominant fuel source for U.S. electricity.

Richard D. Kauzlarich is a former U.S. ambassador and the co-director of the Center for Energy Science and Policy at George Mason University.