Coal has been used globally for centuries, helping to assist nations prosper with the cheap fuel source. Unfortunately coal is also responsible for a significant portion of greenhouse gas emissions, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide pollutants. Climate change, acid rain and smog can all be linked to the use of coal. But due to the accessibility and cheapness, coal has remained the go-to energy source for many nations across the world, including the United States.
But now low natural gas prices are driving coal use down in the United States, leading to levels of use not seen for approximately twenty years. Adding to the growing natural gas use is the fact that natural gas is a cleaner burning fuel. Natural gas generates half as much carbon dioxide versus coal, ninety times less sulfur dioxide and five times less nitrogen oxide.
This year the U.S. is forecasted to attain twenty-nine percent of electricity needs through natural gas. This is up from recent years, with statistics tending to hover near twenty percent. In 2008 the U.S. attained fifty percent of their electricity via coal, a statistic that will likely be below forty percent at the end of 2012. Some experts forecast the use of coal will drop to thirty percent by 2020.
Coal use being responsible for less than forty percent of the U.S. electricity needs would be the lowest level ever recorded since records began in 1949. Coal-fired plants are likely to use 808 million tons of coal by the end of 2012. This is the lowest level of coal use since the year 1992, a year many mark for Kyoto Protocol target figures. 808 million tons is also thirteen percent lower than the level used in 2011.
The declining use of coal has led to issues in coal mining communities as less demand leads to less workers needed and less profit. Companies are experiencing declining coal requests and have subsequently halted extraction in numerous mines, including some in West Virginia and Kentucky, major coal miner states.
Some experts have indicated that the declining use of coal is likely cyclical and will rebound. However, with growing environmental concerns and pressures from environmental groups, other experts believe the heyday of coal may officially be in the past.