Without Clean Power Plan, coal use could rise again

The U.S. Department of Energy expects coal to regain its spot as the nation’s main energy source if the Clean Power Plan is not implemented, which would reverse a trend of natural gas dominance driven by lower prices and government incentives to switch to cleaner energy.

In 2016, natural gas became the dominant source of energy in the U.S., and in Europe a surge of wind power was bumped coal from its number two spot as main energy provider.

The Environmental Protection Agency issued a rule implementing the Clean Power Plan in 2015, but the U.S. Supreme Court stayed the enforcement of the rule pending legal challenges. Nonetheless, states and energy companies have created their own clean energy goals and plans, pushing towards a future with less reliance on coal and more use of natural gas and renewable energy. But President Donald Trump has pledged to curtail the EPA’s work to reduce the impacts of climate change, and has promised to rescue beleaguered coal country by rolling back the Clean Power Plan.

But the economics and the politics of coal have been out of sync. While Trump plans to save coal, record low natural gas prices made it the top energy source for the first time last year. Energy companies around the country, stung by the high cost of burning coal, have switched plants from coal to natural gas, and other coal-fired power plants have been shut down. But without enforcement of the Clean Power Plan looming on the horizon, that trend could reverse, the Energy Department said.

“In the scenario where the Clean Power Plan is not implemented, coal again becomes the leading source of electricity generation by 2019 and retains that position through 2032,” the department said in an analysis by the Energy Information Administration.

Without the Clean Power Plan, fewer coal-fired power plants will be retired and additions to renewable energy capacity will drop.