Chart: US coal power generation rose in 2021, bucking a 6-year trend

Spiking natural-gas prices are the chief culprit.

(Photo by George Frey/Getty Images; graphic by Canary Media's Binh Nguyen)

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There’s no doubt that the U.S. coal industry is in trouble. Between dwindling demand, leery investors, increasingly unfavorable economics, aggressive phaseout schedules and mounting pressure from climate activists, it would seem that the sector’s days are numbered. But the weird year that was 2021 left us with one last unwelcome parting gift: a big lump of coal in our stocking.

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Although the final numbers haven’t yet been tallied, the U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that the U.S. will have seen 22% more coal-fired generation in 2021 than in 2020, the first increase since 2014. The agency attributes this jaw-dropping reversal to a record surge in natural-gas prices, which more than doubled compared to last year. This prompted many utilities to revert to using coal as a fuel source, the price for which has remained relatively stable.

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The silver lining? The EIA holds that 2021 was a one-time blip for coal rather than the start of a sustained upward trend. As natural-gas prices dip back down and coal retirements continue, the agency’s analysts project a 5% decline in coal use for 2022. Let’s hope they’re right. And let’s hope the natural-gas trend line continues downward while the renewables line keeps ticking up.

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