Coal has been the most popular way to generate electricity in America for as long as electricity has been around. For decades, coal's top spot seemed unassailable. But that's all changing, incredibly rapidly. For a variety of reasons — from the advent of cheap natural gas from fracking to new EPA rules on air pollution — coal plants across the United States are shutting down. The older, dirtier plants especially are no longer economical.
A recent report from the Energy Information Administration found that U.S. plant owners and operators are getting ready to retire 27 gigawatts' worth of coal generation, or about 8.5 percent of the coal fleet, between now and 2016. Here's a map showing where plants are closing — the mid-Atlantic region will see the biggest shift:
And that's just the beginning. On Tuesday, the EIA came out with a brand-new analysis projecting that the United States will probably see a full 17 percent of the coal fleet retired between now and 2020. This prediction depends on a few assumptions. If natural gas from shale gets more expensive (which is quite possible), then we'll see relatively fewer retirements — though still about 40 gigawatts' worth. Likewise, if U.S. economic growth is exceptionally high, then rising electricity demand might help keep some of the older coal plants open for business:
The end result is that natural gas is now tied with coal as America's top source of electricity — with each fuel now providing 32 percent of the nation's power. As Alexis Madrigal observes, the U.S. power sector is undergoing "the fastest, largest change in American history":
This turn of events has helped drive down America's global-warming emissions, with carbon pollution declining 7.7 percent since 2006. (A modern natural-gas plant emits about half the carbon dioxide of a coal plant producing the same amount of electricity.) That's a bigger drop than anywhere else in the world.
On the other hand, the rest of the world isn't ready to give up coal just yet. Coal use is growing at a staggering pace around the world, particularly in countries such as China and India. That's created a potentially vast market for coal exports. Currently, U.S. coal producers like Arch Coal and Alpha Natural Resources are hoping to build large export terminals in the Pacific Northwest to compensate for falling demand here. Environmental groups, by contrast, are trying to stop this from happening, arguing that the United States shouldn't be shipping its climate pollution abroad.