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Published on July 13th, 2016 | by Zachary Shahan


Coal’s Collapse Commences … & Conservative “Concern” For Coal Workers Explained

July 13th, 2016 by  

First of all, let’s get this straight — I don’t think anyone is purely against the people who pull coal out of the ground, the people looking for steady jobs and decent income, or the people who try to help other people from losing their jobs. But we are against burning coal for electricity, because that causes ~$500 billion a year in human and societal harm in the United States alone, and we now have much cleaner, cheaper options.

Once upon a time, burning coal was important for bringing electricity to more homes and improving the economy. Today, it is just a bad idea.

Luckily, the giant is falling … and you know how large things fall. Unfortunately, some of the effects are not pretty, and some of the falling process is intent on wreaking more havoc. First, I’ll expose some of the encouraging numbers, and then the political nonsense.

Coal’s Decline

Approximately 2 years ago, burning coal accounted for ~40% of US electricity (41% in March 2014 … and 39% for 2014 as a whole). Now, it’s down to ~24% (23.8% in March 2016, the most recent available month from the Energy Information Administration). Was it just a “bad month” for coal (and good month for humans who don’t want cancer, heart disease, or other coal-related problems)? Well, it was a bad month, but it also followed a clear trend.

Coal electricity production 1

Thanks to CleanTechnica community manager Bob Wallace for the info/data on this, collaboration on the charts (leading the work on them), and the push to write this article.

Coal electricity production 2 Coal electricity production 3

US Electricity Share from Coal (%)
1974 44%
1975 44%
1976 46%
1977 46%
1978 44%
1979 48%
1980 51%
1981 52%
1982 53%
1983 54%
1984 56%
1985 57%
1986 56%
1987 57%
1988 57%
1989 53%
1990 53%
1991 52%
1992 53%
1993 53%
1994 52%
1995 51%
1996 52%
1997 53%
1998 52%
1999 51%
2000 52%
2001 51%
2002 50%
2003 51%
2004 50%
2005 50%
2006 49%
2007 49%
2008 48%
2009 44%
2010 45%
2011 42%
2012 37%
2013 39%
2014 39%
2015 33%

As you can see in various forms above, the past decade has seen a rapid decline in electricity from coal. After holding steady at 44% or more for decades (and decade averages >50%)…

The future doesn’t look any brighter for the industry, with many excessively dirty coal power plants reaching the end of their lives, new power capacity being dominated by renewables (99% in Q1 2016) and natural gas (alongside renewables in 2014 and 2015, but hardly registering in 2016 so far), and coal simply not competing with renewables (or other sources) in multiple ways.

energy sources comparison

Chart by Mike Barnard, for CleanTechnica.

renewable fossils nuclear

Graph by Bob Wallace.

“The industry is on its deathbed” is one way of describing the situation — though, it will be a long, agonizing period of suffering there, since there are still a lot of power plants to shut down.

As you can also see, though, the 2040 Energy Information Administration (EIA) projection for coal is actually above the 2015 percentage… how that would be realistic is beyond any logic I can consider worth discussing.

Human Lives Sacrificed For More $$$ For Decades, But Now We Have A Problem

Unfortunately, with a decline in the industry, industry jobs are also being lost — the people in those jobs could be transitioned to the energy industries of the 21st century, but governments, corporations, communities, and individuals need to pursue that.

Or you could just blame things on the “evil” people trying to bring about societal progress, and push people losing their jobs to vote for someone promising to do the impossible and grow the shrinking coal industry.

Coal baron Robert Murray followed that advice recently — while announcing plans to lay off 4,400 people, ~80% of Murray Energy staff, Murray said the layoffs were “due to the ongoing destruction of the United States coal industry by President Barack Obama, and his supporters, and the increased utilization of natural gas to generate electricity.” Ah, yes, President Obama has that much power, and it has nothing to do with cheap renewables like solar and wind.

Also, as Bob Wallace noted, “the majority of coal jobs went away years ago due to mechanization and mountaintop removal. Renewables are now getting the blame but coal country was mortally wounded well before wind and solar became significant players.”

coal employment

Graph by Paul Krugman, via NYTimes.

Paul Krugman, in 2014, wrote about the “war on coal” and the odd delay in Republican concern:

There used to be a lot of coal miners, but not any more — strip mines and machinery in general have allowed us to produce more coal with very few miners. Basically, it’s a job that was destroyed by technology long ago, with only a relative handful of workers — 0.06 percent of the US work force — still engaged in mining.

So what is this fight about? There’s capital invested in coal and coal-related stuff, hiding behind the pretense of caring about the workers. And there’s also ideology, of which more soon. But the war on coal already happened, it had nothing to do with liberals and environmentalists, and coal lost.

Joe Romm tagged on an important point regarding “concern for coal miners” versus actual concern for coal miners: “Of course, if conservatives truly cared about coal miners they wouldn’t work so hard to block coal dust reforms — an action that United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts said in 2012 ‘amounts to nothing more than a potential death sentence for thousands of American miners.’ “

Indeed. The concern is not for the people, the workers of the coal industry, that political talking points and hype revolve around. The concern is for the millionaires and billionaires who run the coal industry, and who fill the bank accounts of “conservative” organizations and politicians.

Bob Burton writes: “Peabody’s bankruptcy filing reveals advocacy slush funds: Documents filed by Peabody Energy as part of its US bankruptcy proceedings list as creditors a raft of groups denying or downplaying the significance of climate change. The filings reveal Peabody has funded groups such as the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change, climate contrarians Richard Lindzen and Willie Soon and numerous other PR and lobbying groups. (Guardian, PR Watch)

Back to Alexander Kaufman’s piece about Robert Murray’s newfound concern for coal workers:

“Frankly, I am frightened for you, my employees, and the survival of your jobs and family livelihoods,” Murray said in a speech to workers, according to The Wall Street Journal. Their only hope for their jobs, the 75-year-old said, lies in electing “friends of coal” like Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.

That’s not true, of course — not least because the pink slips are set to go out in September, and the election won’t be held until November. But even a President Trump — whose seemingly half-baked plan to save coal would likely only boost its chief rival, natural gas — can’t stop the calamitous decline of the industry.

Indeed. But, hey, at least Trump would keep working for human-killing pollution and burning of fossil fuels, causing hundreds of billions of dollars a year in health and environmental costs.

Susan Kraemer just wrote about the pending doom for natural gas as utility-scale solar beats it on cost. There was no point in mentioning coal, since it is priced out of the market.

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About the Author

is tryin' to help society help itself (and other species) with the power of the word. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director and chief editor, but he's also the president of Important Media and the director/founder of EV Obsession and Solar Love. Zach is recognized globally as a solar energy, electric car, and energy storage expert. He has presented about cleantech at conferences in India, the UAE, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, the USA, and Canada. Zach has long-term investments in TSLA, FSLR, SPWR, SEDG, & ABB — after years of covering solar and EVs, he simply has a lot of faith in these particular companies and feels like they are good cleantech companies to invest in. But he offers no professional investment advice and would rather not be responsible for you losing money, so don't jump to conclusions.

  • Brent Jatko
  • Larry

    King Coal is dead. And the politicians are standing around pointing fingers at each other while the real culprit escaped long ago

    • Brent Jatko

      That’s government for you. Brilliantly responding to last decade’s crises, just like with the Internet and telecom companies. IMO the bulk of the blame rests with apathetic, uninterested voters who don’t bother to research the issues versus CEOs who have a vital monetary interest in the outcome.

    • Brent Jatko

      Markets often work in the public interest despite entrenched opposition.

  • Jason hm

    The tech for superconducting electricity transmission is coming along nicely. Building a Nation wide system of transporting energy could create a lot of jobs and pay out dividends for over a century like the great hydro power works out west.

  • Bullet point:
    “coal reached a low of 33% in 2016”

    Shouldn’t that be 2015?

    • Frank

      I agree, and just for fun, compare the Jan 2016, to 2015 and 2014, then do the same for Feb, March, and Apr. They show YTD as well. http://www.eia.gov/electricity/monthly/epm_table_grapher.cfm?t=epmt_1_01

      Another fun thing is to look at total production for the last few years. Note how flat it is. Now back up to http://www.eia.gov/electricity/monthly/ go way to the right to where the pics labeled Generating Unit Additions, and Generating Unit Retirements are. Now you can put on your fortune teller hat.

      • neroden

        California’s a fascinating glimpse of the future, with natgas plants starting to retire.

        The rest of us still have to close all the coal and nukes before that will happen.

        • Frank

          They are still installing gas plants as you can see from those links. My guess though, is that those plants can not only follow load, but are highly efficient gas combined cycle gas plants. I think they are shutting down less efficient peaker plants.
          Furthermore, I think that battery systems which can ramp up and down in a couple of thousanths of a second are going to be used to cut back on some of the over production running “just in case”.

    • Ugh, yeah, thanks.

      • Jens Stubbe

        Another interesting development is that the remaining coal power plants are most likely the newer and cleaner ones since coal now is down to emitting 2,5 times as much CO2 per unit of produced electricity. http://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.cfm?id=77&t=11

        Provided Bob Wallace ever wants to conform to reality about the relative emission from coal and NG then this would be a nice time to stop our long standing argument. And Mike Barnard who supported the misconception of Bob Wallace could chime in as well.

        To the three of you the article is excellent and the news it contains are really encouraging.

        • Bob_Wallace

          When Jens Stubbe publishes his NG numbers in a peer review journal and then I’ll use them. Until then I will continue to use the widely accepted CO2 numbers for coal and natural gas.

          Since Jens Stubbe’s numbers are speculative I can’t defend their use in a comparison of coal and NG. And since NG still ends up emitting less CO2 per MWh of electricity his adjustment, if accurate, does not change the outcome.

          Both coal and NG emit CO2 when burned for electricity. Coal emits more per MWh generated.

          Both coal and NG pollute water. I’ve found no comparison data, but suspect coal is a much worse problem.

          Both coal and NG extraction damage land. Played out NG wells can capped and the land returned to original state. Blasted off mountaintops cannot be replaced. Destroyed streams cannot be rebuilt.

          Both coal mining and NG fracking can trigger seismic tremors.

          Coal creates air pollution.

          Coal leaves behind large amounts of coal ash, which is an environmental problem.

          Natural gas plants are highly dispatchable which greatly increases the probability that they will be used as fill-in for wind and solar and not run 24/7 as commonly happens with coal plants.

          Running less = less CO2.

          • Jens Stubbe

            Bob I must say you are unbelievable stubborn and have been given every opportunity to graciously withdraw from your obviously anti scientific view point on this matter.

            Please confirm that you now believe that coal emits 2,5 times as much CO2 per produced according to the Eia link you have been presented to.

            If you want to dive deeper into the number, which I encourage you to do, then be my guest.

            However much you exercise the numbers it will still be as I have explained to you in detail a number of times, which is not surprising because it correspond exactly to the links I have previously brought and coincidently to all the links you yourself has chosen to bring in this debate between us.

            If you after yet an examination of the numbers still wish to retain your original opinion then please just ask for instance a chemist, an engineer, an energy consultant or similar trained professional – there should be plenty that you know and trust.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Jens, how do I know that you aren’t selectively comparing the worst NG plants with the best coal plants? The CCNG plants being built in the US are ‘state of the art’ and probably a lot more efficient than ones built a few years ago.

            The NG plants which emit the most CO2 per MWh, the turbine plants, are seldom used. Their CFs run in the 5% – 6% range compared to CCNG plants which report 50% to 55% range CFs.

            If you think the numbers scientists are using are wrong then pull together the relevant numbers and put them out for evaluation. Until you do that all you can say is that it is your opinion that the commonly used number of 60% as much CO2 per MWh with natural gas is wrong.

            The EIA reports Pounds of CO2 emitted per million British thermal units (Btu) of energy for various fuels:

            Coal (anthracite) 228.6
            Coal (bituminous) 205.7
            Coal (lignite) 215.4
            Coal (subbituminous) 214.3
            Diesel fuel and heating oil 161.3
            Gasoline 157.2
            Propane 139.0
            Natural gas 117.0

            ​That means NG emits 57% as much CO2 as bituminous and 51% as much CO2 as anthracite.


            Here’s what the Union of Concerned Scientists has to say –

            “Natural gas emits 50 to 60 percent less carbon dioxide (CO2) when combusted in a new, efficient natural gas power plant compared with emissions from a typical new coal plant ….”


            Here’s a German site reporting similar numbers…


            Now if you think these numbers are wrong then prove it. If you can get the energy field to agree with you then I’ll switch to your numbers.

            Until then I will continue to use the numbers widely accepted by those working in the area.

          • Jens Stubbe

            The EIA numbers compare all NG plants with all coal plants.

            I am surprised the difference is not greater that a factor 2,5 but you should rejoice in that fact because this means that the most polluting coal plants are producing less and the more efficient and thus “cleaner” plants are producing more.

            I have pulled the relevant numbers before and I have made them available to you and everybody else reading Cleantechnica beginning with an article you published that failed to recognize the actual difference in emissions from NG and coal simply because they were lazy and not proof read sufficiently.

            The BTU numbers you again pull are absolutely correct but it only gives you the specific heat content not the amount of CO2 emitted when you burn the fuels and not the conversion efficiency losses for the respective technologies.

            Cannot change physics for you.

          • Bob_Wallace

            “How much carbon dioxide is produced per kilowatthour when generating electricity with fossil fuels?

            You can calculate the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) produced per kilowatthour (kWh) for specific fuels and specific types of generators by multiplying the CO2 emissions factor for the fuel (in pounds of CO2 per million Btu) by the heat rate of a generator (in Btu per kWh generated), and dividing the result by 1,000,000.

            Below are the number of pounds of CO2 produced from different fuels, the average heat rates for steam-electric generators in 2014 using those fuels, and the resulting amount of CO2 produced per kWh:

            Fuel Pounds of CO2 per million Btu Heat rate (Btu per kWh) Pounds of CO2 per kWh

            Bituminous 205.691 10,080 2.07
            Subbituminous 214.289 10,080 2.16
            Lignite 215.392 10,080 2.17

            Natural gas 116.999 10,408 1.22

            Distillate oil (No. 2) 161.290 10,156 1.64

            Residual oil (No. 6) 173.702 10,156 1.76

            Last updated: February 29, 2016”


            1.22 / 2.17 = 56%

            1.22 / 2.07 = 59%

            “Natural gas emits 50 to 60 percent less carbon dioxide (CO2) when combusted in a new, efficient natural gas power plant compared with emissions from a typical new coal plant ….”


          • Jens Stubbe

            The calculations are quite straight forward. I encourage you to do them yourself and get wiser on the subject. The 50% less number for NG is totally unrealistic but the 60% less number is actually the current day average for USA and corresponding with the factor 2,5 I mentioned. Which is a positive surprise to me.

            This quote “Natural gas emits 50 to 60 percent less carbon dioxide (CO2) when combusted in a new, efficient natural gas power plant compared with emissions from a typical new coal plant ….” is totally biased coal propaganda and not in touch with reality because a typical new coal power is probably 45% efficient and a typical new gas power plant typically 60% efficient. Just factor in the difference in Carbon content and then it becomes clear that NG will never ever be just 50-60% less CO2 emitting.

            I am going sailing in a minute until Tuesday, so please do the numbers and get it right.

          • Bob_Wallace

            I’m not a peer-reviewed journal.

            Contact the UCS and tell them they are wrong. They’re scientists.

          • Bob_Wallace

            In 2008, the European Environment Agency (EEA) documented fuel-dependent emission factors based on actual emissions from power plants in the European Union.[14]

            Pollutant… Hard coal… Brown coal…. Natural Gas

            CO2 (g/GJ)…. 94,600…. 101,000…. 56,100

            SO2 (g/GJ)…. 765…. 1,361…. 0.68

            NOx (g/GJ)… 292… 183…. 93.3

            CO (g/GJ)…. 89.1…. 89.1…. 14.5

            Non methane organic compounds (g/GJ)…. 4.92…. 7.78… 1.58

            Particulate matter (g/GJ)… 1,203…. 3,254…. 0.1


            Coal is clearly worse than NG by all comparisons “based on actual emissions from power plants in the European Union”.

            Now add in coal deaths, including mining and earthquake deaths. Add in water pollution. Add in land destruction. Add in fly ash problems.

          • CU

            For information of a new well performing combined cycle NG power plant with 62% efficiency and just 30 minutes start-up time see:


            Yes these combined cycle NG power plants are better complements than the best German hard-coal power plants.

  • CU

    When is the 16H1 statistics released by EIA? Very very interesting if coal is still around 25%, or at least <30%.

    • Bob_Wallace

      First half 2016?

      The EIA does a monthly report that trails by just under three months. The June 27 release had data for March. The July 26 release will have April data. So in September we should know the first half year coal use.


      There will probably be a small increase during the summer months as demand is generally higher when lots of air conditioners. Here’s what monthly coal use looks like from Jan 2014 through Mar 2016.


      • Roland

        april data came out the end of june. It was a brutal month for coal. Milder than normal temps in april plus lots of wind in the northern plains. Iowa’s generation was 60% wind. Coal in Iowa was at its lowest in decades.

        • Bob_Wallace

          That’s provisional data, is it not? The final is about a month later.

          And where did you find that? I stumbled across the early numbers once but don’t recall where.

          • Roland

            i believe so. the numbers are on the electric power monthly. pull down the sources & uses menu on the main page to get to it.

  • vensonata .

    Average annual income for American coal miners is $82,000! I presume they have set some of that aside as retirement contingency. It sounds unbelievably high, but they are primarily heavy equipment operators these days…nobody loads 16 tons with a shovel.

    • Adrian

      If that figure includes everyone working for coal companies, then a few executive bonuses may greatly skew the average…

    • sault

      Need to find what the median income for mine workers is to arrive at a more realistic number. Lots of coal mining companies have tried to balance all the red ink on their books by cutting worker pay, benefits and raiding their pension / health plans. Meanwhile, executive pay is still increasing from ridiculously high to astronomical even while the companies themselves hemorrhage cash under their management.

      • Bob_Wallace

        Median hourly seems to range from $18 to $27 based on the type of work done. Roof-setters earn the highest wage. Electricians are at about $24.

    • It’s not a clean, easy, or safe job. We used to have a former WV coal miner on our team. He gave it up after a huge explosion that killed friends … and was followed by the boss not allowing workers to get off work to attend funerals.



  • Harry Johnson

    The Sierra Club decided to refocus on just shutting down proposed and existing coal power plants. Michael Bloomberg gave them $50m to hire lawyers to work at the state and local levels. They exposed how local power utilities upgrading their existing coal plants to comply with more stringent emission rules would cost ratepayers far more than if converting them to natural gas. They have managed to shut down nearly a third of the dirtiest coal plants. Coal is Dead.

    • Brent Jatko

      Fantastic link, thank you!

    • CU

      The EIA prediction for solar installaion for the period 2016-2023 in the graph in the link is a joke; the annual PV installation in the US is around 7 GW not for eight years.

      • Doug

        The EIA is not good at predicting anything. Citing them as a source, except to mock it, is an indicator of ignorance.

    • Frank

      That was the real war on coal. Pretty efficient too. That much money only buys you about a half of a F35, and that doesn’t even come with fuel, a pilot, or a mechanic with parts and tools.

      • sault

        And for the $100B the F-35 program is over-budget, we could have bought 10% of our electricity over to renewable energy. Or financed a few missions to Mars that would have changed the course of human history for the better. Instead, we have a sub-standard aircraft that tries to be a jack-of-all-trades platform that can’t even hold it’s own against current-gen fighter planes in wargaming. All to enrich the defense contractors that built the thing and give paranoid lawmakers a false sense of security.

    • jeffhre

      Frank refers below to “the real war on coal.” Does anyone have a link to how much help they had gotten from Aubrey McClendon?

      • Brent Jatko

        Probably a substantial portion, but I cannot find proof in a link anywhere.

    • Doug

      1. No investor in their right minds would start up a new coal plant, or put a lot of money into modernizing an existing one. Nobody wants a coal plant near them.
      2. Coal plants aren’t as effective as peaker plants compared to gas. They are inflexible and don’t like to be shut on and off. As renewables increase, the need to rapidly bring capacity on and off line becomes critical.
      3. Pollution, duh. Even a change to the POTUS can’t hide that from locals.
      4. Clean coal is a myth, or a lie, not sure which. Nobody believes that anymore.
      5. The Sierra Club is perfecting their tactics and methods. As the number of plants decreases, they can apply more resources to each remaining one.

  • Kevin McKinney

    “As you can also see, though, the 2040 Energy Information Administration (EIA) projection for coal is actually above the 2015 percentage… how that would be realistic is beyond any logic I can consider worth discussing.”

    Hey, can I get a graphic to go with that? 😉

    • Bob_Wallace

      Here’s one year’s version where they predict 32% coal in 2040. Another year they predicted 34%.


      • Bob_Wallace

        Hello Disqus! What happened to the graph?


        • Bob_Wallace

          Let’s see if Disqus is up from its nap….


      • Frank

        Look at my reply to arne-nl further up. Those eia numbers tell a different story.

      • Bob_Wallace

        Will Disqus fail me today?


        • Bob_Wallace

          Yes it will and it does.

          Disqus notified of problem.

    • The red line in two of the charts is the 2040 projection.

      • Kevin McKinney

        Thanks, that helps.

  • JamesWimberley

    Not to mention that potential export markets are cratering even faster. China’s war on coal, with the government expecting 1.3 million miners to lose their jobs over the next few years, has led to an even sharper drop in imports. India may be planning (less and less credibly) to increase coal burning, but from domestic production, not imports. The current international prices for coal make new coal mines, and many existing ones, unprofitable.

    • Yes, I almost got into that. Thanks for adding in.

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      • Frank
        • Bob_Wallace

          Drops should be brutal through the end of this year and extending into 2017. We’ve got a lot of coal plants closing before the end of 2016. There just won’t be as much ability (capacity) to burn coal as we had in previous years.

          Past 2017 the rate of drop will likely close. The remaining plants are likely to escape EPA regs. There will have to be another reason to close them. Unless Democrats regain Congress and hold the White House we won’t see legislation. We might have to wait for them to age out and for wind and solar prices to drop some more and make them uneconomical to run.

          We need to charge coal for its external costs. Piece on NPR today about how blowing dust from coal ash dumps are causing health problems for people living around the dump areas.

          Graphs may or may not display below. Disqus is experiencing fail. The plant age graph is from 2010 so add six years to the numbers on the horizontal axis. The average life for a US coal plant is 40 years.


      • Jens Stubbe

        What will happen to the rest of the coal value chain including the railroads and other heavily subsidized parts of the value chain.

        And what will happen to the US population health and local climate. Please continue to investigate and report.

        Here in Europe Germany has waged war on renewables and are now blocking the market access for renewable energy where ever they can against binding EU obligations and their own alleged Energiwende policies.

        Their protectionism against renewables is nearing absurd levels with import from Scandinavia down by 75% despite cheaper selling price.

        From Harry Johnson’s excellent comment and link it seems the same is going on in USA at utility level but being exposed. Unfortunately we do not have the same kind of common free press across EU due to language and tradition, so it would be much appreciated if you could help us out here.

        • Bob_Wallace

          Zach and I have had some limited discussion about how to make Cleantechnica more ‘global’. The problem is how to publish in multiple languages, it might take an editor fluent in each language.

          But might this work? Take a CT article. Just use Google Translate to translate the English language article into the German/Italian/Polish/whatever language of the specific language CT site. Then let readers work out any shortcomings of the GooTran version.

          Doesn’t Google ask for help in creating better translations?

          Assuming there might be problems that GooTran can’t clear up create a way for commenters who also speak English communicate with CT staff.

          Not a perfect solution, but a low cost one.

          How about our ‘English as a second language’ people give Google Translate with a couple of articles and see how it works.

          Or point out the fatal flaw(s) with my idea….

          • Are Hansen

            Using automatic translation is NOT a good idea here, I think. In our political and technical discussion precision is vital.
            Anyhow, probably unnecessary. Most people in Europe understand English well enough

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