This has not a good year for coal in the United States. Fifty-five coal-burning power plants haveshut down this year alone including the Big Sandy power plant in Louisa, Kentucky
The significance of the Big Sandy plant is that it is located right in the heart of coal country; near the Appalachian Mountains, an area that has relied on coal, not only for energy, but as an economic driver for decades.
EPA regulations have forced coal companies to decide whether to pay for expensive retrofitting to their existing coal-burning electric power plants or to shut the burners down permanently. The American Electric Power company has decided to shut down both coal furnaces of Big Sandy, keeping open the possibility of retrofitting one at a later date to burn natural gas.
For most environmentally-concerned individuals this would seem like a major win. Burning coal not only emits a great deal of carbon dioxide but also other harmful pollutants like particulate matter and sulfur dioxide. Plus mining coal often involves significant environmental and human costs.
The fact that a coal plant would shut down in an area where coal is plentiful is an example of how social changes, concerns about global warming and EPA regulations are changing the energy industry. But this begs the question: what happens next?
Relying less on coal for energy means that burden going to be placed on other sources of energy. At the present one of the main sources of electrical energy is natural gas; while not renewable or devoid of emissions, it is a much cleaner option than coal. But there are ramifications to this shift to natural gas, making the environmental costs of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) an even greater concern.
If natural gas becomes relied on for more electrical energy production, natural gas companies have to find a safer way of removing it from the earth for it to be a sustainable source of energy.
The options other than natural gas to coal are clean, renewable sources of energy like wind. A decline in coal use presents a good opportunity for renewable energy, but companies still need financial and government support for these clean, renewable sources. And a much better electrical distribution system infrastructure, particularly to move electricity generated from wind and solar to customers.
Although increased use of natural gas over coal may be an encouraging trend and a step towards reducing our carbon emissions in the short term, it is pertinent to keep in mind one of the significant costs of increased use of natural gas - increased fracking - and the effects fracking will have on the environment.
Assisted by Michael Ciccarone