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Coal power in the United States


Coal power in the United States

U.S. 2013 Electricity Generation By Type.[1]
Coal electrical generation (blue line), compared to other sources, 1949-2011
Electricity Produced by Coal Consumption

Coal power in the United States accounted for 39% of the country's electricity production in 2013.[2] Coal supplied 16.5 quadrillion BTUs of energy to electric power plants in 2013, which made up nearly 92% of coal's contribution to energy supply.[3] Utilities buy more than 90 percent of the coal mined in the United States.[4]

Coal has been used to generate electricity in the United States (US) since an Edison plant was built to serve New York City in 1882.[5] The first alternating current power station was opened by General Electric in Ehrenfield, Pennsylvania in 1902, servicing the Webster Coal and Coke Company.[5] By the mid-twentieth century, coal had become the leading fuel for generating electricity in the US. The long, steady rise of coal-fired generation of electricity shifted to a decline after 2007. The decline has been linked to the increased availability of natural gas and renewable power, and more stringent environmental regulations. The Environmental Protection Administration has advanced restrictions on coal plants to counteract mercury pollution, smog, and global warming only in 2012;


  • Recent trends, comparisons, and forecasts 1
    • Canceled and slowed proposals 1.1
  • Safety 2
  • Environmental impacts 3
    • Acid rain 3.1
      • Sulfur dioxide emissions 3.1.1
    • Carbon footprint: CO2 emissions 3.2
    • Mercury pollution 3.3
  • Public debate 4
    • Advocates 4.1
    • Opposition 4.2
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7

Recent trends, comparisons, and forecasts

Coal reserves in the USA in 1996.
Coal reserves in BTUs as of 2009

The average share of electricity generated from coal in the US has dropped from 52.8% in 1997 to 45.0% in 2009.[6] In 2009, there were 1436 coal-powered units at the electrical utilities across the US, with a total nominal capacity of 338.732 GW[7] (compared to 1024 units at nominal 278 GW in 2000).[8] The actual average generated power from coal in 2006 was 227.1 GW (1.991 trillion kilowatt-hours per year),[9] the highest in the world and still slightly ahead of China (1.95 trillion kilowatt-hours per year) at that time.[10] In 2000, the US average production of electricity from coal was 224.3 GW (1.966 trillion kilowatt-hours for the year).[9] In 2006, US electrical generation consumed 1,026,636,000 short tons (931,349,000 metric tons) or 92.3% of the coal mined in the US.[11]

In the first quarter of 2012, the use of coal for electricity generation declined substantially more, 21% from 2011 levels. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, 27 gigawatts of capacity from coal-fired generators is to be retired from 175 coal-fired power plants between 2012 and 2016.[12] Natural gas showed a corresponding increase, increasing by a third over 2011.[13] Coal's share of electricity generation dropped to just over 36%.[13]

The coal plants are mostly base-load plants and account for about 32% of the peak electricity production in the summer, when the electricity demand is the highest and the auxiliary (mostly non-coal) plants are added to the grid.[14]

As of 7/7/11, utility companies will shut down and retire aging coal-fired power plants following the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) announcement of the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAP).[15] The extent of shutdowns and reduction in utilization will depend on factors such as future price of natural gas and cost of installation of pollution control equipment; however, as of 2013, the future of coal-fired power plants in the United States did not appear promising.[16][17] Recent estimates gauge that an additional 40 gigawatts (GW) of coal-fired capacity will retire by 2020 (in addition to the nearly 20GW that have retired as of 2014). This is driven most strongly by inexpensive natural gas competing with coal, and EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), which require significant reductions in emissions of mercury, acid gases, and toxic metals, scheduled to take effect in April 2015.[18]

Canceled and slowed proposals


Coal power has historically been known for being a dangerous working environment. The Mine Safety and Health Administration of the United States Department of Labor reports deaths by state and year for the period of 1996 to 2009; total deaths for that time frame were 437. In the US there were 47 deaths in 2006, 34 in 2007, and 30 deaths in 2008.

Accident types include:

  • Power haulage - 47%
  • Electrical - 13%
  • Machinery - 9%
  • Falling material - 7%
  • Ignition/explosions - 7%
  • Slips/falls - 4%
  • Explosives - 4%
  • Other - 9%

Reference: [1]

Environmental impacts

In the United States, three coal-fired power plants reported the largest toxic air releases in 2001:[21]

The Environmental Protection Agency classified the 44 sites as potential hazards to communities, which means the waste sites could cause death and significant property damage if an event such as a storm, a terrorist attack or a structural failure caused a spill. They estimate that about 300 dry landfills and wet storage ponds are used around the country to store ash from coal-fired power plants. The storage facilities hold the noncombustible ingredients of coal and the ash trapped by equipment designed to reduce air pollution.[22]

Acid rain

Byproducts of coal plants have been linked to acid rain.

Sulfur dioxide emissions

86 coal powered plants have a capacity of 107.1 GW, or 9.9% of total U.S. electric capacity, they emitted 5,389,592 tons of SO2 in 2006 – which represents 28.6% of U.S. SO2 emissions from all sources.[23]

Carbon footprint: CO2 emissions

Emissions from electricity generation account for the largest share of U.S. greenhouse gases, 38.9% of U.S. production of carbon dioxide in 2006 (with transportation emissions close behind, at 31%). Although coal power only accounted for 49% of the U.S. electricity production in 2006, it was responsible for 83% of CO2 emissions caused by electricity generation that year, or 1,970 Tg of CO2 emissions. Further 130 Tg of CO2 were released by other industrial coal-burning applications.[24]

Click Here to see a graph displaying CO2 emissions from coal powered plants.

Mercury pollution

U.S. coal-fired electricity-generating power plants owned by utilities emitted an estimated 48 tons of mercury in 1999, the largest source of man-made mercury pollution in the U.S.[25] In 1995-96, this accounted for 32.6% of all mercury emitted into the air by human activity in the U.S. In addition, 13.1% was emitted by coal-fired industrial and mixed-use commercial boilers, and 0.3% by coal-fired residential boilers, bringing the total U.S. mercury pollution due to coal combustion to 46% of the U.S. man-made mercury sources.[26] In contrast, China's coal-fired power plants emitted an estimated 200 ± 90 tons of mercury in 1999, which was about 38% of Chinese human-generated mercury emissions (45% being emitted from non-ferrous metals smelting).[27] Mercury in emissions from power plants can be reduced by the use of activated carbon.

Public debate


In 2007 an advertising campaign was launched to improve public opinion on coal power titled America's Power. This was done by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (then known as Americans for Balanced Energy Choices), a pro-coal organization started in 2000.


In the face of increasing electricity demand through the 2000s, the US has seen a "Growing Trend Against Coal-Fired Power Plants". In 2006 through 2007 there was first a bullish market attitude towards coal with the expectation of a new wave of plants, but political barriers and pollution concerns escalated exponentially, which is likely to damage plans for new generation and put pressure on older plants.[28] In 2007, 59 proposed coal plants were cancelled, abandoned, or placed on hold by sponsors as a result of financing obstacles, regulatory decisions, judicial rulings, and new global warming legislation.[29][30]

The Stop Coal campaign has called for a moratorium on the construction of any new coal plants and for the phase out of all existing plants, citing concern for global warming.[31] Others have called for a carbon tax and a requirement of carbon sequestration for all coal power plants.[32]

The creation in January 2009 of a Presidential task force (to look at ways to alter the energy direction of the United States energy providers) favors the trend away from coal-fired power plants.

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^ a b Speight, James G. (2012-09-04). The Chemistry and Technology of Coal, Third Edition. CRC Press. p. 13.  
  6. ^ Electric Power Monthly - Energy Information Administration
  7. ^ "Existing Electric Generating Units in the United States".  
  8. ^ "Inventory of Electric Utility Power Plants in the United States 2000".  
  9. ^ a b "Electric Power Annual with data for 2006".  
  10. ^ See WorldHeritage article on Chinese economy
  11. ^ "U.S. Coal Consumption by End-Use Sector".  
  12. ^ Gerhardt, Tina (1 November 2012). "Record Number of Coal Power Plants Retire".  
  13. ^ a b Electric Power Monthly, March 2011 (released May 2012), U.S. Energy Information Administration
  14. ^ EIA - Electricity Data, Analysis, Surveys
  15. ^ EPA finalizes rules for cross-state air pollution - The Hill's E2-Wire
  16. ^ Brad Plumer (April 8, 2013). "Study: The coal industry is in far more trouble than anyone realizes". The Washington Post. Retrieved April 8, 2013. 
  17. ^ Lincoln F. Pratson; Drew Haerer and Dalia Patiño-Echeverri (March 15, 2013). "Fuel Prices, Emission Standards, and Generation Costs for Coal vs Natural Gas Power Plants". Environmental Science & Technology (American Chemical Society).  
  18. ^ "AEO2014 projects more coal-fired power plant retirements by 2016 than have been scheduled". Today in Energy. U.S Energy Information Administration. Retrieved 25 July 2014. 
  19. ^ Washington Post. Power Plant Rejected Over Carbon Dioxide For First Time.
  20. ^ Souder, Elizabeth (2007-10-15). "Plans for 8 Texas coal plants formally canceled". The Dallas Morning News. Retrieved 2008-06-19. 
  21. ^ Coal and Oil Power Plants Top North American Polluter List
  22. ^ Associated Press - June 2009
  23. ^ "Technology Transfer Network: State Emission Index".  
  24. ^ "Inventory of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and sinks: 1990–2006" ( 
  25. ^ "Mercury emissions control R&D". U.S. Dept. of Energy. 2006-01-18. Archived from the original on 2007-12-22. Retrieved 2008-01-27. 
  26. ^ "Mercury study: Report to Congress (EPA-452/R-97-004)" ( 
  27. ^ Streets D. G., Hao J., Wu Y. et al. (2005). "Anthropogenic mercury emissions in China". Atmos. Environ. 39 (40): 7789–7806.  
  28. ^ Palang Thai: The Growing Trend Against Coal-Fired Power Plants (USA)
  29. ^ "59 Coal Plants Cancelled, Abandoned, or Put on Hold in 2007,", 1/22/08
  30. ^ "Victories 2007," CoalSwarm
  31. ^ Want to stop global warming? STOP COAL!
  32. ^ Cap-&-Trade and Carbon Tax Legislation

External links

  • Carbon-emissions culprit? Coal.
  • Clean Air Watch.
  • State Coal Profile Index Map
  • Coal production in the United States – an historical overview
  • Is America Ready to Quit Coal?
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