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At first glance, 2020 looks to be another big year for coal retirements. The 9.4 gigawatts of coal capacity shut down this year is the fourth-highest annual total since 2009, federal figures show.
But dig a little deeper, and it becomes apparent that the 36 retirees this year were relatively small emitters. The 385 million tons of carbon dioxide generated between 2010 and 2019 by units retiring this year is the smallest such figure since 2017, according to an E&E News review of federal data.
Total coal emissions will still be down this year. American coal plants were already running less, and the COVID-19 pandemic pushed even more to the sidelines.
Yet coal generation could rebound in 2021, when the economy is expected to recover and an anticipated uptick in gas prices could prompt power companies to switch on their old coal stations.
The dynamic highlights the role gas prices play in determining American coal consumption and carbon dioxide output. It also points to the role coal retirements have played in greening the U.S. economy in recent years. American coal capacity fell 25% between 2010 and 2019, with emissions from coal plants declining by 46%.