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Coal's Share of US Energy Pie Shrinking


A recent federal report looks at changes in how the United States generates its electricity. It shows a significant drop in the amount of power coming from coal. 

The analysis looked at retired power generation - types of electrical production that aren’t being used anymore.  Over 80% of the retired electricity was coal powered. Those plants either closed or switched to natural gas generation. 

Bryan Willson is the Director of the Colorado State University Energy Institute. He says the shifts are happening because of cheap natural gas and air quality standards enacted last year.

“The combustion of coal produces a fair amount of mercury," he says, "it also produces ash, particulates, sulfur, and there are solutions to all of those. We have coal fired plants that can burn very cleanly. However, owners can bring much more efficient natural gas plants online relatively cost effectively.”

While coal was a majority of retired power generation, a majority of new installations came from renewable energy. This creates another problem for coal, and not just because of the costs.  When the sun sets or the wind dies down, renewable generation drops. To cover the shortfall, other power plants have to step up. 

"Natural gas plants can do that load-following fairly well," says Willson. "Coal plants are much more challenged in that. They don’t respond as quickly, and they incur fatigue in the boilers when they suddenly change loads.”

So as renewable energy becomes more integrated into the grid, natural gas looks even more attractive.  Also, with massive proven reserves of natural gas, the price will probably remain low for a very long time.  

“We are seeing a change in the way the U.S. grid is structured. You’re seeing a change in the way the local grids are structured.  You’re seeing increased environmental pressures. All of those things combined make things look challenging for the coal industry moving ahead," says Willson.

He says coal will definitely have a role to play in our national grid, and of other nations, but how big that role will be is uncertain.

For KVNF, I’m Jake Ryan.

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