Just five years ago, coal was flourishing in the U.S. With electricity demand and the price of natural gas both rising, coal was viewed as essential to keeping power costs under control. Utilities drew up plans to build dozens of coal-fired plants.For coal apologists, here's the real kick in the pants: "Even without the EPA rules, coal is not really competitive," says Jone-Lin Wang, head of Global Power for the energy research firm IHS CERA. So much for coal executives' fever dreams of a "war on coal."
But around the same time, a revolution was under way in the natural gas industry. Drillers figured how to tap enormous deposits of previously inaccessible reserves. As supplies grew and the price of natural gas plummeted, the ground shifted under the electric-power industry. [...]
Power plants that burn coal produce more than 90 times as much sulfur dioxide, five times as much nitrogen oxide and twice as much carbon dioxide as those that run on natural gas, according to the Government Accountability Office, the regulatory arm of Congress. Sulfur dioxide causes acid rain; nitrogen oxides cause smog; and carbon dioxide is a so-called greenhouse gas that traps heat in the atmosphere.
So if America really has put coal in its rear view mirror, what does it mean for Appalachia? Countries like Saudi Arabia are taking their oil profits and pouring them into renewable energy to prepare for the inevitable decline of their oil reserves. Is there a similar plan to prepare Appalachia for a world where its coal is too expensive and too dirty? Or any plan at all?