Coal power plants to lose up to a quarter of capacity by 2035

Nearly a quarter of the nation’s coal power generation capacity could shut down by 2035, as natural gas gains popularity as a cleaner and cheaper fuel for producing electricity, the U.S. Government Accountability Office forecasts.

In a report released this week, the agency determined that power industry could retire between 15 percent and 24 percent of its coal-fueled power generation capacity over the next 22 years. The fuel source has been hurt by a combination of lower electricity use, stiffer regulations on pollutants and a rapid decline in the price of natural gas.

“Coal is generally expected to remain a key fuel source for U.S. electricity generation in the future,” the agency reported, “but coal’s share as a source of electricity may continue to decline.”

The nation has about 1,400 coal-fueled plants with 317,469 megawatts of power generating capacity. Coal’s share of the power generation market has shrunk from 50 percent in 2002 to 42 percent last year. Natural gas briefly topped coal this summer as the nation’s favorite form of electricity and has remained a close second since then.

The speed of coal’s decline will be determined by the price of natural gas and environmental regulations, the GAO noted. A wave of new and proposed regulations have flowed from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently, seeking to curb emissions common to coal, which emit more than twice as much carbon dioxide per unit of electricity compared to their natural gas counterparts, according to the GAO.