Coal use dropped by a full 18% last year, according to a preliminary estimate from the Rhodium Group, a private research group that studies energy markets and climate policy. That caps off a decade in which domestic coal use was cut in half, as renewables and gas power picked up the slack. Mostly thanks to the coal drop, carbon emissions in the power sector declined by 10%, a big turnaround from 2018, when they ticked up by 1.2%. And coal use dropped by just 5% in 2019.
The bad news: The rest of the economy — including the transportation and manufacturing sectors, and buildings — is still heavily reliant on fossil fuels.
Coal plants have closed in record numbers across the country even as the Trump administration tried to prop them up. President Donald Trump’s replacement for the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan — which, though it was never implemented, would have shifted the energy sector away from coal — was designed to allow new coal plants to open and existing plants to run longer.
Trump also appointed Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, to run the Environmental Protection Agency.
Sixty-one coal plants have announced plans to shut down since Trump took office, according to the Sierra Club, and 2019 saw shutdowns of some of the biggest U.S. plants. But 231 plants are still operating without plans to shut down. Coal just hasn’t been able to keep up with the cheaper energy that’s available from renewables and natural gas — the latter of which is more than 30% cheaper than coal.
In April of 2019, renewables produced more energy than coal for the first time ever. Coal still accounted for about 24% of U.S. power generation last year, while gas made up 37%, nuclear accounted for 20%, and renewables climbed up to 18%.
But moving away from coal plants is essentially the only way that the U.S. got greener last year. Overall emissions went down by only 2.1%, driven almost entirely by coal’s decline.
“What we find here is the impact that coal can have alone. A 10% reduction in the power sector is not insignificant,” said Hannah Pitt, one of the co-authors of the report. “On the other hand, there’s a limit to how much we can rely on coal power plant retirements alone to really drive down economy-wide emissions.”