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What killed coal? It may not be what you think

By Matt Egan

Published August 21, 2018

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President Donald Trump's Environmental Protection Agency announced an effort Tuesday to prop up coal by replacing Obama-era carbon emission policies

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But the regulatory reversal is unlikely to spark a coal comeback. Coal's true nemeses are innovation and economics.

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In short, coal is dying because of dirt-cheap natural gas. The rise of renewable energy isn't helping.

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Fracking has made natural gas abundant and cheap. Breakthroughs in windmills, solar and other renewable technologies are making them affordable alternatives.

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Coal is just failing to compete with natural gas.

Katie Bays

Energy analyst at Height Capital Markets and a former analyst at the US Energy Information Administration

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The administration's efforts to cut red tape may help -- but only at the margins.

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A dozen coal power plants will be offline by the end of 2019, according to energy consulting firm BTU Analytics.

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BTU anticipates 56 new or converted natural gas plants online by the end of next year.

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Trump has announced a series of rollbacks of environmental regulations, including last year's move to withdraw the US from the Paris climate agreement — a move the coal industry cheered.

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And the EPA is introducing more lax rules on carbon emissions that could ease the burden on coal plants.

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Despite Trump's efforts to cut regulation, coal declined on his watch. Coal power generation dropped nearly 6% in the first half of this year compared with that period in 2017, according to US government stats.

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Despite the pressure on the industry, industry observers don't see coal disappearing. It's competitive in certain parts of the US, including Appalachia and the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming.

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In 2016, natural gas led coal for the first time as America's leading source of power generation. Coal fell to an all-time low of 30% of the market in 2017, according to government statistics.

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Renewable energy made inroads due to technological advancements and investment. Solar and wind are competitive with fossil fuels — a trend that's expected to continue.

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Renewable technologies continue to come down in cost. Coal is not able to compete. We should be supporting 21st Century technologies that employ far more Americans instead of trying to prop up a failing 20th Century energy technology.

Jeff McDermott

Managing partner at Greentech Capital Advisors, a sustainable energy investment firm.

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