Coal-fired power generation in the U.S. electricity generation fleet in 2019 dropped to its lowest output in 43 years, according to the federal Energy Information Administration report released Monday.
Last year, the U.S. coal-fired generating fleet produced 966,000 GWh, a 16 percent (or 240,000 GWh) decrease from 2018, the EIA report shows. This is the largest percentage decline in history and the lowest output since 1976.
Lower electricity demand in 2019 was partially the cause for coal’s fall, but the key deflationary drivers were higher natural gas-fired capacity and utility-scale wind turbines, both more economical and lower emitting than their rival resource.
Gas-fired generation nearly hit 1.6 million GWh in 2019, an 8 percent increase from the previous year, while wind turbine-powered electricity surpassed 300,000 GWh, a 10 percent gain from 2018. Both gas and wind outputs were all-time records.
U.S. coal-fired capacity peaked at 318 GW in 2011 and has been declining ever since then, according to the EIA. Plant retirements and the lack of new capacity has pushed down the capacity down to 229 GW, about a quarter of the overall U.S. electricity resource mix.
Coal fleet utilization, or rate of operation compared to capacity, also has declined over the past decade. U.S. coal plants were generating up to 67 percent of capacity in 2010 and are now down to an average of about 48 percent, according to the EIA.
Natural gas combined-cycle turbine (CCGT) plants ran at 57 percent of capacity in 2019. The average capacity factor of utility-scale wind turbines is about 35 percent with no carbon emissions, while coal-fired capacity factors are around 48 percent, according to reports.
The efficiency of CCGT plants and the low cost of natural gas has propelled it to the top of the U.S. generation mix. Coal prices have been declined –to less than $2 per million British thermal unit late last year—but the delivered cost of coal would need to be 30 percent lower to make up for the differences in efficiency between a typical coal-fired plant and gas-fired plant, according to the EIA.
U.S coal-fired power plant retirements topped 10 GW in 2019, data shows.
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How to keep coal relevant as some part of the electricity mix–and how to make it somewhat cleaner emitting–will be part of the content at the Future of Coal-Fired Generation track in the POWERGEN International conference workshops. POWERGEN 2020 will be happening December 8-10 in Orlando, Florida.