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Today in Energy

August 27, 2021

68% of U.S. coal fleet retirements since 2011 were plants fueled by bituminous coal

U.S. coal-fired capacity by coal rank

In 2011, the United States had 317.6 gigawatts (GW) of coal-fired electric generation capacity. About 88.7 GW of that capacity was retired in the decade that followed. Units fired by bituminous coal accounted for the largest share of retired capacity, at 68%.

Coal is classified into different types, or ranks. The two coal types most commonly used in U.S. coal-fired power plants are bituminous and subbituminous coal.

Generating units that burn bituminous coal were generally older and smaller, leading to more of them retiring than units fueled by subbituminous coal, particularly from 2011 to 2015.

The lower delivered price for subbituminous coal (because of more cost-effective mining practices) also makes coal plants that use it more economically competitive than bituminous coal-fired plants. In 2019, the delivered price of subbituminous coal was $1.86 per million British thermal units (MMBtu), compared with $2.26/MMBtu for bituminous coal.

Another important factor in coal capacity retirements is the degree of competition from other electricity generation sources in the regions where the plants operate.

Bituminous coal is predominantly mined in the Appalachian Basin and Illinois Basin; it’s the primary coal type used in coal plants in the northeast and southeast regions of the United States. However, many of these plants sourced their coal from mines in Appalachia, which quickly became uneconomical following the increase in natural gas production in the nearby Marcellus and Utica shale gas fields.

To take advantage of their proximity to expansive natural gas supply, producers built a large amount of natural gas-fired capacity in Pennsylvania and Ohio on top of the Marcellus and Utica shales. Of the 93.5 GW of natural gas capacity built in the United States from 2011 to 2020, 14.3 GW is located in Pennsylvania and Ohio. The build-out of natural gas capacity added to the economic advantage of natural gas, driving bituminous coal-fired plant retirements. Bituminous coal-fired capacity retirements in Ohio and Pennsylvania accounted for 20% of all coal retirements between 2011 and 2020.

Even with lower fuel prices, subbituminous coal-fired units are also retiring because of increased competition from natural gas and renewable sources. Subbituminous coal, primarily mined in Wyoming, is the dominant coal type used in the central part of the United States. Although coal-fired generation encounters less competition from natural gas in the central part of the country, the rapid growth of wind capacity in the central United States since 2011 has taken market share away from power plants using subbituminous coal.

Principal contributor: Glenn McGrath