During the presidential campaign last fall, a single message was repeated endlessly in Appalachian coal country: President Barack Obama and his Environmental Protection Agency, critics said, had declared a “war on coal” that was shuttering U.S. coal-fired power plants and putting coal miners out of work. Not so, according to a detailed analysis of coal plant finances and economics presented here yesterday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (which publishes ScienceNOW). Instead, coal is losing its battle with other power sources mostly on its merits.
Although the United States has long generated the bulk of its electricity from coal, over the past six years that share has fallen from 50 percent to 38 percent. Plans for more than 150 new coal-fired power plants have been canceled since the mid-2000s, existing plants have been closed, and in 2012, just one new coal-fired power plant went online in the United States. To investigate the reasons for this decline, David Schlissel, an energy economist and founder of the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis in Belmont, Massachusetts, dove deeply into the broader economics of the industry and the detailed finances of individual power plants.