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In 2009, there were 1436 coal-powered units at the electrical utilities across the US, with the total nominal capacity of 338.732 GW (compared to 1024 units at nominal 278 GW in 2000). The actual average generated power from coal in 2006 was 227.1 GW (1.991 trillion kilowatt-hours per year), the highest in the world and still slightly ahead of China (1.95 trillion kilowatt-hours per year) at that time. In 2000, the US average production of electricity from coal was 224.3 GW (1.966 trillion kilowatt-hours for the year). In 2006, US electrical generation consumed 1,026,636,000 short tons (931,349,000 metric tons) or 92.3% of the coal mined in the US.
The average share of electricity generated from coal in the US has dropped from 52.8% in 1997 to 45.0% in 2009. In the first quarter of 2012, the use of coal for electricity generation has declined substantially more, declining 21% from 2011 levels. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, 27 gigawatts of capacity from coal-fired generators is to be retired from 175 coal-fired power plants between 2012 and 2016. Natural gas showed a corresponding increase, increasing by a third over 2011. Coal's share of electricity generation dropped to just over 36%.
The coal plants are mostly base-load plants and account for about 32% of the peak electricity production in the summer, when the electricity demand is the highest and the auxiliary (mostly non-coal) plants are added to the grid.
As of 7/7/11, utility companies will shut down and retire aging coal-fired power plants following the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) announcement of the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAP). The extent of shutdowns and reduction in utilization will depend on factors such as future price of natural gas and cost of installation of pollution control equipment; however, as of 2013, the future of coal-fired power plants in the United States did not appear promising.
Coal power has historically been known for being a dangerous working environment. The Mine Safety and Health Administration of the United States Department of Labor reports deaths by state and year for the period of 1996 to 2009; total deaths for that time frame were 437. In the US there were 47 deaths in 2006, 34 in 2007, and 30 deaths in 2008.
Accident types include:
In the United States, three coal-fired power plants reported the largest toxic air releases in 2001:
The Environmental Protection Agency classified the 44 sites as potential hazards to communities, which means the waste sites could cause death and significant property damage if an event such as a storm, a terrorist attack or a structural failure caused a spill. They estimate that about 300 dry landfills and wet storage ponds are used around the country to store ash from coal-fired power plants. The storage facilities hold the noncombustible ingredients of coal and the ash trapped by equipment designed to reduce air pollution.
Byproducts of coal plants have been linked to acid rain.
86 coal powered plants have a capacity of 107.1 GW, or 9.9% of total U.S. electric capacity, they emitted 5,389,592 tons of SO2 in 2006 – which represents 28.6% of U.S. SO2 emissions from all sources.
Emissions from electricity generation account for the largest share of U.S. greenhouse gases, 38.9% of U.S. production of carbon dioxide in 2006 (with transportation emissions close behind, at 31%). Although coal power only accounted for 49% of the U.S. electricity production in 2006, it was responsible for 83% of CO2 emissions caused by electricity generation that year, or 1,970 Tg of CO2 emissions. Further 130 Tg of CO2 were released by other industrial coal-burning applications.
U.S. coal-fired electricity-generating power plants owned by utilities emitted an estimated 48 tons of mercury in 1999, the largest source of man-made mercury pollution in the U.S. In 1995-96, this accounted for 32.6% of all mercury emitted into the air by human activity in the U.S. In addition, 13.1% was emitted by coal-fired industrial and mixed-use commercial boilers, and 0.3% by coal-fired residential boilers, bringing the total U.S. mercury pollution due to coal combustion to 46% of the U.S. man-made mercury sources. In contrast, China's coal-fired power plants emitted an estimated 200 ± 90 tons of mercury in 1999, which was about 38% of Chinese human-generated mercury emissions (45% being emitted from non-ferrous metals smelting). Mercury in emissions from power plants can be reduced by the use of activated carbon.
In 2007 an advertising campaign was launched to improve public opinion on coal power titled America's Power. This was done by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (then known as Americans for Balanced Energy Choices), a pro-coal organization started in 2000.
In the face of increasing electricity demand through the 2000s, the US has seen a "Growing Trend Against Coal-Fired Power Plants". In 2006 through 2007 there was first a bullish market attitude towards coal with the expectation of a new wave of plants, but political barriers and pollution concerns escalated exponentially, which is likely to damage plans for new generation and put pressure on older plants. In 2007, 59 proposed coal plants were cancelled, abandoned, or placed on hold by sponsors as a result of financing obstacles, regulatory decisions, judicial rulings, and new global warming legislation.
The Stop Coal campaign has called for a moratorium on the construction of any new coal plants and for the phase out of all existing plants, citing concern for global warming. Others have called for a carbon tax and a requirement of carbon sequestration for all coal power plants.
The creation in January 2009 of a Presidential task force (to look at ways to alter the energy direction of the United States energy providers) favors the trend away from coal-fired power plants.