Sustainable America Blog

The coal industry faces steep challenges for the future

For many, the decline of coal is a reason to celebrate. In terms of carbon emissions, coal is the worst offender worldwide. While some have speculated that recent EPA regulations aimed at curbing coal’s carbon emissions are to blame for the phase out of coal-fired plants, many experts explain that it is actually the low price of natural gas along with other market pressures that are influencing this trend.

The Brattle Group recently released a report titled, Potential Coal Plant Retirements: 2012 Update, in which they state:

These retirements occur absent any future regulations restricting carbon emissions. Generally, these results are about 25 GW higher than the retirement levels we projected in December 2010 due mainly to lower expected gas prices, despite the somewhat more lenient environmental regulations we currently envision.

And according to, 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 boom in natural gas is not without its own debate, much of which we covered in a previous post. But the reality is, the U.S. has an abundant supply of natural gas available domestically and the emissions are favorable to carbon as demonstrated in this Emissions Reality Check infographic. Carbon dioxide emissions could fall by 150 million tons per year if coal plants are replaced by natural-gas fired combined cycle plants.

Sierra magazine recently launched a photographic project called The Cost of Coal that follows the life cycle of coal and uses powerful imagery to document the impact that coal mining, burning and dispersal has on American families.

While it would appear the closure of several coal-fired plants is becoming increasingly inevitable, it is still unclear what fuel will replace coal. Today, natural gas is the most viable substitute – there is both abundant domestic supply and the ability to retrofit coal plants to become natural gas plants.

The ultimate goal is to engineer truly renewable fuel alternatives, but for the meantime, we at Sustainable America believe that the move away from coal is a move in the right direction.

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By the Numbers

Currently 50 million households suffer from food insecurity, meaning that family members cannot always meet their basic food needs.

10 million people a year could be fed through the recovery of just one-fifth of food waste.

Only 2% of food waste is composted or otherwise recycled—62% of paper is recycled.

Consumers throw out about 40% of the fresh and frozen fish they buy.

The U.S. produced 208 pounds of meat per person in 2009—60% more than Europe.

Low income commuters spend a much higher proportion of their wages on gas—8.6% versus 2.1% at $4 per gallon.

Food prices rose 35-40 percentage points between 2002–2008.

Americans consume 25% of the world’s produced oil, but our nation holds less than 3% of the world’s proven oil reserves.

The International Energy Agency says greenhouse gas emissions rose 3.2% last year, with a 9.3% increase in China offsetting declines in the US and EU.

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