EIA: U.S. Coal-fired generation making 2021 rally so far

By Rod Walton, Power Engineering and POWERGEN Content Director

Coal-fired power’s precipitous decline in the U.S. net generation mix has been reversed, for however long that upward trend holds.

The latest Electric Power Monthly figures released this week by the U.S. Energy Information Administration shows coal and natural gas dominating the domestic mix for 2021 so far. The new report only includes combined January and February statistics.

Utility-scale net generation in the U.S. totaled 677.8 million MWh for the two months, some 3 percent  above the 2020 pace before the global COVID-19 pandemic hit. The net generation cited by the EIA is only slight above the pace of the utility-scale output for 2019 at the same point.

So far this year, coal-fired power accounted for nearly 169.7 million MWh, basically 25 percent of the U.S. utility-scale total, according to the EIA. The coal-fired net generation was more than 47 million MWh higher than the first two months of 2020, which itself was a dramatic decline from the previous year due to numerous coal-fired power plant retirements.

Coal lately has shrunk from its historic 35 percent position to less than 20 percent at various times in the net generation picture, according to the EIA. More coal-fired retirements are expected as the Biden Administration pushes extensive carbon reduction goals.

Natural gas ascended to the top of the U.S. generation mix several years ago and is holding that crown steadily. Utility-scale gas-fired plants produced 237 million MWh in January and February, which is 35 percent of the overall national portfolio and on par with recent performance, according to the EIA monthly data.

Nuclear power plants generated 134.8 million MWh, nearly 20 percent of the U.S. net generation mix for those two months, federal figures show. Renewable energy including hydropower, solar and wind accounted for close to 130 millon MWh and a combined 19 percent portion.

If the data snapshot holds true, nuclear energy provided more than half of the utility-scale carbon-free electricity generated in the U.S.

Dozens of power plants suffered outages in the southern U.S. due to a massive and lingering winter storm in February. In Texas, Louisiana and elsewhere in the southwest, below-zero temperatures shut down numerous plants including wind turbines and natural gas wells and pipelines feeding gas-fired plants.

Coal-fired and nuclear, both of which have on-site fuel supply, also suffered some outages but also stepped up to provide a greater share of the generation during that frigid weather, according to reports.

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The future of coal-fired generation remains a key part of the content sought for POWERGEN International happening Jan. 26-28, 2022 in Dallas. The POWERGEN Call for Speakers is now open and seeking session ideas around Decarbonization, Digitalization, Hydrogen, Energy Storage Breakthroughs, Optimizing Plant Performance, The Future of Electricity, New Energy Mix and Trends on Conventional Power.

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