It’s no secret that the American coal industry is in decline. Many people attribute its fall to increased environmental regulations, but the reality is significantly more complicated. It’s certainly true that environmental regulations and increasing green energy production have taken some of the energy market away from the coal industry, they can only take credit for a relatively small part of the impact. Even if all of those regulations were repealed, the coal industry would still be on the road to its demise.
Green Energy’s Role
Many people blame green energy for coal’s decline by pointing out the fact that more than half of the nation’s new energy capacity is for renewable electricity, such as solar and wind power. While renewable energy has been expanding for the past few years, right now it simply does not have the power to compete with coal on a large scale.
Green energy generation is rarely steady. Solar panels only work while the sun is shining, and turbines stop spinning when the wind stops blowing. That means that they often generate far less than their capacity would lead people to believe. Fossil fuels are much more reliable, so they still have a role even in the minority of places where renewable sources dominate.
It’s also important to remember that some of coal’s competitors can make use of existing infrastructure. It takes much more time and money to install new solar panels and wind turbines than it does to convert a coal plant to natural gas or oil, so renewable sources can seem far more significant than they really are.
Rules and Regulations
New regulations are doing some damage to the coal industry, but not as much as people think. Coal plants have relatively high carbon emissions, and many states are implementing laws to reduce those emissions. On the other hand, the transition is relatively slow, so while these laws may have a big impact in the future, they’re unlikely to be responsible for the current decline.
The Rise of Natural Gas
The real threat to the coal industry is natural gas. Fracking and other cheap methods of harvesting the gas have reduced the price to the point where coal power is falling out of favor. It simply costs much more than relying on natural gas, and even people who are unconcerned with the environment will switch over to a cheaper option. This shift is quickly driving coal companies into bankruptcy, and the ever-increasing capacity of green energy and natural gas will probably keep them from recovering from the blow.