The coal belt of America is a zigzag of mining towns and power plants that runs along Eastern rivers and mountainous states, from Kentucky and West Virginia down through Tennessee into Georgia. The mining of coal has been in a terrible slump the past few years, as the ripples of softening global demand have bankrupt several coal companies, putting many out of work. But it’s the burning of coal also that’s being hit hard now, as aging plants die.
Built as far back as fifty years ago along great rivers, these giant furnaces were fed a constant stream of thermal coal, ferried by barge upon the waters of the Ohio, Muskingum, and Susquehanna. This year alone, according to the Energy Information Agency (EIA), 13-15 gigawatts (GW) of U.S. coal-fired capacity will retire. That’s roughly enough electricity to power 6 million homes. By the time this decade is through, over 60 GW of coal-fired capacity will have retired, mostly throughout the Mid-Atlantic states, according to the EIA.
The question arises: what’s going to replace this lost capacity? The economy may be growing slowly, but not enough to handle an actual decline in electricity output. Interestingly, as the coal belt becomes a retirement belt, there’s rapid buildout of new energy infrastructure, and it’s not taking place in the East.