The environmental problem with burning coal isn’t complex. There are short-term issues with the emission of tiny particles of soot (which pose a health risk) and the generation of other air pollutants. Then there’s the big, longer-term issue: climate change. A bit more than a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States come from electricity generation, much of which has historically been a function of burning coal.
As a result, there has been a focus by environmentalists on eliminating the burning of coal for power generation. A report by the Guardian offers a remarkable bit of data about that effort in Britain. For the past 11 days and counting, none of the country’s electricity has come from burning coal.
How significant is that shift? This graphic, included in the Guardian report, makes the significance obvious.
For observers in the United States, it’s natural to wonder how America’s shift away from coal burning compares. The answer? Not that well.
Data from the Energy Information Administration, tabulated on a monthly, not daily basis, show that the country is generating a smaller percentage of its electricity from coal — but hasn’t, at any point, eliminated it completely. The lowest percentage came in March 2016, when only 23.7 percent of U.S. electricity was generated by burning coal. In March of this year, the density was 24.7 percent.
It’s important to recognize, though, that even this more-modest shift in U.S. energy production isn’t really a function of production being handed off to solar and wind or other renewable sources such as hydro. Instead, it’s mostly a function of fracking. The development of a more effective way to extract oil and gas from shale formations — fracturing the rock using a pressurized water solution — drove down natural gas prices and made transitioning from coal to gas cost-effective.
For the past decade or so, natural gas has increased significantly as a percentage of electricity production, rising from 14.8 percent of generation in March 2001 to 34.8 percent last month. Renewable generation has grown more rapidly, increasing nearly 500 percent since 2001 — but it still makes up much less of the electricity production mix than natural gas.
(“Other renewables” here and on the chart below refers to an EIA category that includes wind and solar generation and excludes hydroelectric generation.)
If we look at monthly electricity production by source, you can see how the decline in coal use has been mostly (but not entirely) matched by an increase in the use of natural gas.
Natural gas burns much cleaner than coal, though the release of gas during the extraction process is problematic. (Methane, the main component of natural gas, is much better at trapping atmospheric heat than carbon dioxide.)
For those hoping to see coal eliminated from America’s energy supply, there is a bit of good news. So far, 2019 is the first year in the modern era in which no month has seen at least 30 percent of electricity generation come from coal. That’s noteworthy in part because the density of coal use is generally higher in winter months.
Granted, Britain is much smaller than the United States. But it appears to have been several years since British energy production used coal at that rate.