This piece originally appeared in the National Journal Energy and Environment Experts Blog.
The U.S. electric power system is gradually shifting toward cleaner forms of generation. One sign of this transition is the declining use of coal for electric power production. In 2011, coal dropped to its lowest level of power generation in more than a decade, according to the U.S. government’s independent Energy Information Administration (EIA). In fact, the EIA recently reported that coal’s share of U.S. electric power generation fell below 40% for the last two months of 2011, the lowest level since 1978.
To understand the cause of this decline, it is important to examine the underlying market forces. Doing so provides important context for recent coal plant retirement announcements, particularly given that some companies have attributed retirements to EPA rules that are still years away from going into force. For example, FirstEnergy Corp. announced in late January 2012 that it would retire several of its smaller coal-fired power plants, explaining that the decision was “based on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), which were recently finalized, and other environmental regulations.” FirstEnergy, however, had previously cited a range of reasons for its decision to reduce operations at many of its smaller coal plants.