While coal demand for electric generation is expected to increase, recent environmental suits could give alternative fuels an edge.
The future of the U.S. coal industry is increasingly uncertain as witnessed by new environmental regulations and legal proceedings. Last year was a benchmark period, as environmentalists and the federal government separately filed lawsuits to further control surface mining in West Virginia and coal-fired emissions, respectively. Despite these developments, the use of coal for electric generation continues to grow. Indeed, Resource Data International's study, "The Outlook for Coal and Competing Fuels," forecasts coal demand from the power generation sector to increase 12 percent by 2020.
Purchases of U.S. coal by the electric utility sector were projected to reach 895 million tons in 1999, or 83 percent of the total demand for U.S. coal. The sector is the only market segment forecast to grow, which is remarkable in light of increasingly stringent regulation of emissions. Emission control efforts will raise coal-fired power generation costs.
Previous RDI studies have quantified the cost of additional emission controls, and in most cases, coal-fired generation remains cheaper than natural gas-fired alternatives. However, the variable cost advantage of existing coal-fired units compared to high-efficiency combined cycle natural gas units is declining and may evaporate in regions distant from the coal fields.