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Coal's share of power generation slipping

November 30, 2012|By Bettina Boxall
  • The Reid-Gardner power station, a coal-fired plant outside Las Vegas.
The Reid-Gardner power station, a coal-fired plant outside Las Vegas. (Julie Jacobson / Associated…)

Coal’s role in fueling power plants is expected to continue to shrink in coming years as old, polluting plants are taken out of operation and power companies turn to cheaper natural gas to generate electricity.

In a report to a U.S. Senate committee this week, the Government Accountability Office found that while coal will remain a key fuel source for power companies, its generating share is likely to decline.

Most U.S. coal is used to generate electricity. Last year about 42% of the nation’s electricity was produced by coal-burning units. But environmental regulations and changing market conditions could significantly trim that figure. One assessment cited by GAO predicted that if natural gas prices are low, by 2035 coal’s slice of the generating pie could fall to 30%.

“After decades of growth, U.S. coal production and consumption have fallen, primarily due to declines in the use of coal to generate electricity,” the GAO said.

The GAO -- Congress’ nonpartisan, investigative arm -- expects the power industry to retire 15% to 18% of its coal-fueled capacity, focusing on older, smaller and dirtier plants. That, combined with the construction of new, cleaner burning plants and the required retrofit of existing facilities with pollution controls should reduce power plant emissions.

Coal production is also shifting from its traditional base in Appalachia to the West, where coal is low in sulfur content and less expensive to mine than in the East.

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