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Coal plants close as US electricity industry’s consumption drops 34%

The biggest source of climate pollution dropped to 34% of US electricity generation and co-author of a new report says: ‘These are permanent changes’

Republicans in Congress and the mining industry have blamed Obama for the fossil fuel’s decline, accusing him of waging a “war on coal”
Republicans in Congress and the mining industry have blamed Obama for the fossil fuel’s decline, accusing him of waging a “war on coal”

America’s use of coal for electricity dropped to its lowest point in the historical record in 2015, delivering a new blow to an industry already in painful decline.

The dirtiest of fossil fuels and America’s biggest single source of climate pollution, coal accounted for just 34% of US electricity generation last year, according to the Sustainable Energy in America handbook on Thursday.

It was the smallest share for coal in the electricity mix since 1949, the first year in which Energy Information Administration records were kept.

“It was a really big year,” said Colleen Regan, a power analyst for Bloomberg New Energy Finance, who was co-author of the report for the Business Council on Sustainable Energy. “It was a landmark year with a long-term trajectory that we saw as the US decarbonising its power fleet.”

Coal made up 39% of electricity supply in 2014, the annual report said.

The changes in the US electricity system last year also produced milestone benefits for the climate, the report found.

Greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector – the largest single source of climate pollution and the target of Barack Obama’s clean power plan – fell 18% below 2005 levels last year, the report found.

That was halfway to Obama’s goal of a 32% cut in greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector by 2030, and on a relatively short time frame.

The drop in coal use for electricity appeared set to seal the fuel’s long and slow decline in the US, with crashing prices, thousands of miners laid off work, and big coal mining companies forced into bankruptcy.

Last month, Arch Coal, the second biggest coal mining company in the US, filed for bankruptcy to help shed some $4.5 billion in debt. Two smaller firms. Alpha Natural Resources and Patriot Call, filed for bankruptcy in 2015.

Republicans in Congress and the mining industry have blamed Obama for the fossil fuel’s decline, accusing him of waging a “war on coal”.

But the report found the biggest threat to coal last year remained cheap natural gas. There was also a spike in new wind and solar power. By the end of last year, wind and solar accounted for 5.4% of the energy mix, up slightly on 2014, the report found.

Some power companies opted to shut down old, coal-fired power plants, in advance of the clean power plant rules.

Those shutdowns, representing about 5% of the entire fleet, meant that there was no coming back for coal, said Colleen Regan, co-author of the report and a power analyst for Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

“The retirement of these plants means that a lot of the numbers that we saw in 2015 are permanent. They are structural changes,” she said. “These are not things that happened just because it was a mild year, which was what happened in 2012, or because natural gas prices were artificially low. These are permanent changes.”

Regan went on: “Those coal plants that are lost are not going to be turning back on ever again.”

She expected more coal-fired plants to go off-line in 2016 – although probably not at the rate of last year – but it would be premature to declare the death of coal in the US, she said.

Coal was expected to remain a significant part of the US power mix for some years.

West Virginia and Kentucky, which have been hit hardest by the decline in coal prices, are projected to continue burning coal. Other states close to the vast reserves of cheap coal in the Powder river basin are expected to remain on coal as well.

According to BNEF forecasts, coal would still account for about 24% of electricity use in 2030.

“I don’t want to say that it’s the death of coal or even a slow death but we are definitely tapering,” Regan said.

By Suzanne Goldenberg (The Guardian of London)

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