Coal imports fall as natural gas advances

HOUSTON — Coal imports have dropped  in the past few years as power plants have cut back orders because of low growth in electricity demand and as competition from natural gas has increased, according to a government analysis.

Coal imports at electric power plants have fallen from a peak level of 30 million tons in 2007 to less than 7 million in 2013, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported Wednesday. The decline is largely due to shrinking use of coal to generate power and the availability of cheaper domestic coal, the Energy Department agency said.

Imported coal, mostly from Colombia, Venezuela, Indonesia and Canada, fills a relatively small part of the nation’s coal consumption — less than 1 percent in 2013 and only 3 percent during the peak year of 2007 , according to the government data.

Coal import demand is concentrated in a handful of power plants on  the East and Gulf coasts, which have to pay more for Appalachian coal because of transportation issues, according to the EIA.

It said the number of plants using imported coal plummeted from 48 in 2006 to just 13 in 2013.

Before 2011, the total net summer generating capacity for coal-importing power plants was 18,977 megawatts. From then until 2013, 9 percent of this capacity was retired and another 21 percent is scheduled for retirement by 2020. Eleven plants are expected to completely stop generating power from coal while another plant in Alabama will partially retire its coal-fired capacity, according to the EIA.