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Coal’s share of the market for generating electricity in the United States got some more bad news Thursday, but this time it could be only a temporary setback.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, nuclear power plants produced more electricity than coal-fired plants last year — 790 million megawatt hours vs. 774 million. Natural gas remained the leader in power production at 1.6 billion Mwh. Do the math, and you see gas was used to produce more power than coal and nuclear combined.

“Last year marked the first time that coal was not the largest or second-largest source of annual electricity generation in the United States since at least 1949,” the EIA reported.

The EIA listed two reasons for the decline of coal’s share of the power market. One is the number of coal-fired power plants that have been retired since 2005. That has led to a 29% decrease in coal-fired generating capacity. Another reason is that the remaining coal plants are being used less. Last year they operated at only 40% of total capacity. Combined, that has caused coal-fired generating capacity to fall 61% since 2008.

Meanwhile, nuclear power plants operated at 93% capacity last year.

The bright side in this — or the less dark side, if you prefer — is that the EIA expects coal-fired production to rebound while nuclear production decreases.

“EIA expects that increases in natural gas prices will make coal more competitive in the electric power sector. This expected increase in coal’s utilization more than offsets the upcoming retirement of 2.8 (gigawatts) of coal capacity in 2021 and another 8.5 GW in 2022,” the EIA report issued Thursday said.

Three nuclear plants totaling 5.1 GW are scheduled for retirement this year, and another is scheduled for retirement next year. The Vogtle nuclear plant in Georgia plans to add 2.2 gigawatts capacity before the end of next year, but that, of course, does not make up for what is scheduled to go offline.

Production from wind, hydropower and other renewable power sources remain below that from fossil fuels and nuclear power.

The quick takeaway from this is that fossil fuels and nuclear power remain important part of America’s electricity portfolio, despite the desire for renewables. Yet two of the three dominant power sources are in decline.

From an economic standpoint and even a national security one, is it logical to force coal and nuclear power out of service before adequate replacements are in service? Some people in the nation’s capital would like to see the same for natural gas, too.

Here in Appalachia, we are as close to the energy industry in terms of resource extraction and power production as anyone else in the nation. We know what has to happen from the time you flip the switch until the light comes on. Renewables may be the future, but they are nowhere close to being the present. Policymakers and others need to keep that in mind before they make unwise and irreversible decisions pertaining to our supply of electricity.

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