With a Grid in Transition, Coal Continues to Deliver

Author: Rich Nolan
Graphic demonstrating coal is still rising in consumption, supporting jobs and has 78% of Americans supporting its inclusion in an energy strategy.

The current global energy debate continues to perpetuate the false narrative that renewable energy is the only form of power generation necessary to meet our current and future needs. This belief ignores the ongoing contributions of coal as the cornerstone of a reliable and affordable grid and the persistent demand for this invaluable energy resource.

As our appetite for energy-demanding technologies, like electric vehicles, computers and artificial intelligence, continues to grow, so does our need for a full suite of reliable energy sources. Major countries around the world are leaning heavily on their coal fleets to support their surging energy needs, serving as a fair warning to the U.S. that prematurely retiring coal plants before establishing reliable substitutes is unwise.

Coal is Booming Internationally

In 2023, global coal consumption hit a record peak of 8.3 billion tons, driven primarily by industrial applications in rapidly developing economies like China, India and Southeast Asia. This trend underscores coal’s enduring role in the global energy mix, essential for maintaining grid stability when other sources falter.

This ongoing growth in coal consumption in 2023 and the first half of 2024 highlights several key factors driving this demand. The industrial boom in countries like China and India necessitates a reliable and robust energy source. Coal, with its high energy density and cost-effectiveness, remains the go-to solution for powering industries and manufacturing sectors. China, for instance, continues its major investments in coal to support its massive industrial base and urban development. China consumed 54% of the global coal market in 2022, and the International Energy Agency (IEA) reported a nearly 7% increase in China’s coal power generation in 2023, driven by economic recovery and reduced hydropower availability due to drought. This reliance on coal continues even in a year when China commissioned as much solar PV as the entire world did in 2022, and its wind additions grew by 66% year-on-year. The takeaway: We are in a period of energy addition, not simply replacement.

Geopolitical Stability and Beyond

Countries with large coal reserves, including the U.S., have an important edge in maintaining geopolitical stability. These reserves provide energy security by reducing reliance on imports and enhancing national security with a consistent energy supply. Economically, the coal industry supports local economies, especially in rural areas, generating significant revenue and jobs — supporting nearly 150,000 direct jobs and creating more than 500,000 jobs indirectly nationwide. Geopolitically, coal exports strengthen international relationships and create economic dependencies leveraged in global negotiations. A diversified energy mix that includes coal also buffers against global market volatility. American coal played a critical role in helping move Europe off Russian energy in the months following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and providing stability to global energy markets in a time of crisis.

Lastly, coal remains one of the most affordable sources of energy. The infrastructure for coal mining and power generation is well-established, and the economies of scale make coal an economically viable option. Electricity from coal power plants is among the cheapest options available. This affordability is crucial for consumers and industries alike, helping to keep energy prices low and economic growth robust.

We Need Support for Coal to Support Reliability

The Biden administration’s approach to phasing out coal power, as reiterated by Assistant Secretary of State for Energy Resources Geoffrey Pyatt, is out of touch with current energy realities and public opinion. Despite the administration’s tcommitment to ending coal use, recent polling shows that 78% of Americans support an inclusive energy strategy that includes coal and 72% are concerned about the transition’s impact on energy reliability. Moreover, 65% believe that closures of well-operating power plants should be paused until viable replacement capacity is operational. This concern has grown significantly, indicating rising public unease about the speed and potential repercussions of the energy transition.

Coal remains a critical component of the U.S. energy mix, ensuring affordability, reliability and security, particularly during times of high energy demand and volatile natural gas prices. The administration’s push for an early coal phase-out, without a reliable substitute, risks exorbitant energy prices, stalled manufacturing and potential blackouts. Consider this: If you want to move, you wouldn’t knock down your house before permitting, building and completing a new one. Our electric grid is no different. Tearing down what works for us today before we have anything to reliably replace it will only hurt the American people and our economy.