After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there was a veritable panoply of stories going around (including at Marketplace) about how coal was expected to make a comeback. A global energy crunch did, indeed, come to pass. But at least here in the U.S. — where the electricity industry has been phasing out coal plants for a while — predictions about coal’s resurgence did not.
January through March are supposed to be among the strongest months in the coal business, according to Dennis Wamsted of the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.
“It’s winter. It’s supposed to be high demand,” he said. “Well, that didn’t turn out.” Far from it. This winter, power generation using coal fell by more than 25% from last year and hit a record low across the country.
American utilities are now burning less than half the coal they did a decade ago. Wamsted said it’s looking like the end of an era.
“There is no plausible rationale where I can see coal-fired generation increasing,” he said.
Coal has lost its luster, especially as natural gas has seen its price stay low, despite a spike when the war in Ukraine started.
“Natural gas and coal are direct competitors,” said Sanya Carley, a professor at Indiana University. “In some places, you actually see that a power plant can flip back and forth between the two.”
The bigger picture, Carley said, is that renewables are getting cheaper over time and grabbing market share from coal. But things are slightly different outside the U.S. Flora Champenois of Global Energy Monitor said China and India, along with other populous countries, have battled major heat waves over the last year.
“Some of these countries have sort of turned to all of the above … more coal, more renewables,” she said — whatever it takes to deal with record demand for power.
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