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U.S. coal-fired power generation last year was at its lowest level since 1976, according to data released May 11 by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).
The agency said output from U.S. coal-fired units fell to 966,000 GWh in 2019, the lowest level in more than 40 years. The EIA said the 16%, year-over-year drop from 2018 levels was the largest percentage decline ever, “and the second-largest in absolute terms (240,000 GWh).” That decline is expected to continue this year; IHS Markit recently projected that utilities will burn nearly 130 million fewer tons of coal this year than in 2019.
The EIA said increased power generation from natural gas-fired plants, along with wind power and overall lower demand for electricity, has driven the decline in coal-fired generation. The agency said natural gas-fired generation reached an all-time record of almost 1.6 million GWh in 2019, a year-over-year increase of 8%. Wind power generation topped 300,000 GWh, up 10% from 2018.
EIA has forecast generation from renewable resources will increase 11% this year from 2019 levels. The agency said renewable energy is more likely to be dispatched by grid operators when it’s available because of its lower operating cost.
U.S. coal-fired generation capacity hit a high of 318 GW in 2011 and has fallen ever since as coal units have retired or switched to natural gas and other fuels. The EIA said U.S. coal-fired generation capacity was at 229 GW in 2019, a 28% drop during the decade. Utilization rates for coal plants also have fallen, to 48% in 2019, down from 67% in 2010, based on the operating capacity at those times. Meanwhile, combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT) power plants ran at an average capacity factor of 57% last year, nine percentage points higher than coal-fired plants.
EIA’s report released Monday showed coal-fired generation dropped in every U.S. region, by more than 18% in some areas, including the U.S. Southeast. The agency also noted that “Average delivered prices for coal at power plants have been declining. Through 2015, the cost of coal averaged $2.25 per million British thermal units (MMBtu) before falling to less than $2.00/MMBtu in late 2019.”