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Coal Still Powers More U.S. Electricity Than Any Renewable Energy Source

Despite a continuous decline in U.S. coal power generation, the share of coal in America's electricity mix is still above 15%, more than any renewable energy source.   

All renewable energy sources combined-wind, solar, hydropower, biomass, and geothermal-surpassed coal-fired generation in the U.S. electric power sector for the first time in 2022. But coal still holds about 16% share of electricity generation, more than wind's share of around 11%, hydropower's 6%, or solar power's 4% share of the electric generation mix.  

True, coal generation and share have been declining in recent years - thanks to a surge in renewables and a higher share of natural gas-powered electricity due to rising production and falling gas prices. But coal is still playing a role in providing reliable baseload electricity and while falling, its share and contribution to the U.S. power system isn't negligible at all.

Coal is declining, but not at the fast pace environmental campaigners and enthusiasts would have liked to.

The Biden Administration aims to make the U.S. power grid zero-emission by 2035. But this would be difficult to achieve, considering that currently fossil fuels - mostly natural gas and coal - provide 60% of the total U.S. electricity generation. Last year, gas accounted for 43% and coal for more than 16%. Related: Russian Fuel Terminal Resumes Exports After Ukrainian Drone Attack

Early this year, coal's share held above 15%, although coal power generation fell between January and April to the lowest level in four years, per LSEG data cited by Reuters columnist Gavin Maguire.

Coal consumption typically falls in the spring and autumn - the so-called 'shoulder' season - when demand for heating and cooling is at its lowest.

But coal-fired power generation could rise in the summer, especially if heatwaves hit areas where wind power cannot provide the additional power supply.

Moreover, operators have planned fewer coal capacity retirements this year, per EIA data. Operators plan to retire 5.2 gigawatts (GW) of U.S. electric generating capacity in 2024, with coal and natural gas jointly accounting for 91% of the planned capacity retirements in the United States this year. The total capacity planned for retirement would be 62% lower compared to last year, when 13.5 GW was retired, and the least in any year since 2008.

After 22.3 GW of U.S. coal-fired electric generating capacity retired over the past two years, coal retirements will slow down in 2024, the EIA said in February. The 2.3 GW of coal-fired capacity scheduled to retire accounts for 1.3% of the U.S. coal fleet that was in operation as of the end of 2023. Coal retirements are scheduled to rebound in 2025 when operators expect to retire 10.9 GW.

The U.S. is now retiring coal capacity every year, but some areas depend on coal for their power generation more than others, while the expected surge in electricity demand due to data centers to support AI technologies will also require a stable power supply.

Five U.S. states rely on coal for more than half of their electricity generation. These are North Dakota, Missouri, Kentucky, Wyoming, and West Virginia, Reuters's Maguire notes.

Moreover, data centers have seen such explosive growth that they are taxing utilities beyond what soaring power demand is calling for. 

Some utilities in the eastern and southern parts of the U.S. are proposing build-outs of new natural gas-fired capacity alongside renewables to support the growth in electricity consumption coming from data centers. Others have planned to delay the timeline for retiring coal-fired capacity to ensure grid reliability.

For example, Kansas City-based utility Evergy said in June 2023 that it would retire coal operations at its Lawrence Energy Center only in 2028, compared to earlier plans for end-2023 retirement.

"Our service area is experiencing some of its most robust electricity demand growth in decades, including very large projects like the Panasonic electric vehicle battery manufacturing factory and the Meta datacenter, as well as broad-based economic development in both Kansas and Missouri," Evergy's president and CEO David Campbell said last year.

By Tsvetana Paraskova for Oilprice.com

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Tsvetana Paraskova

Tsvetana is a writer for Oilprice.com with over a decade of experience writing for news outlets such as iNVEZZ and SeeNews.  More