As of 2010, the combined generating capacity of all the nation's coal plants was 342 Gigawatts. But those coal plants are closing down faster than American Airlines terminals, thanks to the plunging cost of natural gas, boots-on-the-ground campaigns from anti-coal activists, and, to a lesser degree, the ambiguous specter of EPA pollution regulations.
A few months ago, the Brattle Group released a study that showed that 30 GW of coal power was likely to be retired by 2016. The researchers have just updated their report: Now they think it'll be 59-77 GW that goes down. As David Roberts notes over at Grist, that's 20-25% of the United States' entire coal fleet in just a few years. That's incredible. And it has less to do with incoming EPA regulations — which industry realized (surprise, surprise) weren't as bad as its lobbyists and PR fleet were moaning they'd be.
The sooty caveat to this bout of good news is, of course, that the low natural gas prices are a result of the fracking boom; and there are reports that warn that the practice, as currently conducted, can be as polluting and carbon-emitting as coal. But there's no doubt that nat gas burns cleaner, and anti-fracking activism and lawsuits are poised to rein in the industry's current excesses.
Long story short, the regulatory climate for coal is slightly more favorable than expected two years ago. But it doesn’t matter, because “market conditions” are kicking coal’s ass anyway.
One market condition has to do with demand for power, which has slowed/plateaued due to the recession and recent mild weather. Another is the falling price of renewables. But the big one, the cudgel to coal’s head, is natural gas prices. You will recall that in April, natural gas generation equaled coal generation in the U.S. (at 32 percent each) for the first time since the Energy Information Administration started keeping records. Utilities are cranking natural gas up and retiring coal plants, mainly for economic reasons. Nick Akins, president and CEO of the coal-heavy utility American Electric Power, has said flat out that “there will not be any new coal plants built, with the current price of gas and the forecast for the future for gas.”
The slow death of coal is reason to celebrate — coal-fired power is still the worst offender worldwide in terms of carbon emissions, and preserving a stable climate depends largely on phasing it out. The gears are now in motion; a stateside energy transition is officially underway.