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Numbers continue to point to a coal catastrophe

image credit: Courtesy EIA
Christopher Neely's picture
Independent Local News Organization

Journalist for nearly a decade with keen interest in local energy policies for cities and national efforts to facilitate a renewable revolution. 

  • Member since 2017
  • 725 items added with 353,029 views
  • Aug 7, 2020

Last week, the U.S. Energy Information Administration published a study that showed in 2019, coal produced its lowest electricity output since 1978, which was the year of the 110-day national coal miners' strike. Discounting the anomaly year, you'd have to go back to around 1975 to see such low coal output, and 2019's numbers come only 11 years after the industry saw its highest output in 2008. 

The fall of coal is the result of various factors, most importantly the dramatic drop in cost and reliability of solar and wind power (natural gas as well) and the global movement toward stringent clean energy goals that produce zero or net-zero carbon emissions. 

The pandemic has been blamed (or praised depending on the issue) for accelerating nascent trends into new normals (such as working from home). It has had a similar effect on global energy trends and the coal industry in the U.S. After suffering an already difficult year in 2019, coal production has slid faster since the virus began taking hold in early 2020. According to EIA, U.S. coal exports through May 2020 are 29% lower than the same time in 2019—which was coal's worst year in more than a generation. Between 2018 and 2019, coal power fell 16%. So far in 2020, it's fallen an additional 34%. 

The bad news for coal continued this week, when it was announced that the value of the North Antelope Rochelle mine in Wyoming, (the world's largest coal mine, accounting for 12% of U.S. production) fell $1.4 billion in value, according to Peabody Energy. This major drop was seen as a tacit acknowledgment of the energy market's move toward wind, solar and natural gas. 

When 2020's numbers come out, which, so far, has seen a 4% drop in overall energy demand, it's likely we'll see another historically bad year for coal. 

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Julian Jackson's picture
Julian Jackson on Aug 7, 2020

Although if you want the human species to continue, then this is good news :-). The problem is that governments mostly do not seem capable of managing the necessary transition. Those coal towns and workers need new employment, and that needs to be planned, rather than ad hoc. I worry that, just like the mess the UK and US have made of the pandemic, the authorities won't be able to create a just transition - thereby stoking unrest.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Aug 7, 2020

Christopher, anyone who takes a positive message away from this is fooling themself. Coal's catastrophe is gas's godsend - and a death warrant for climate:

"People assume we’re getting rid of coal, and then we’re getting rid of gas next,” said Noah Kaufman, a research scholar at Columbia’s Center on Global Energy Policy. But because gas is plentiful, cheap and provides round-the-clock electricity it’s a lot harder to get rid of."

Warren Buffett bets $9.7 billion on a long future for natural gas

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