CASPER — The amount of electricity coming from coal this summer will likely fall as natural gas and renewable power creep into coal’s territory, according to the Energy Information Administration, an independent federal agency that tracks energy data and forecasts trends.
The Midwest and Southern regions may have the largest drop in coal burn, according to the EIA, with the coal percentage in the Midwest expected to fall from 49 to 45 percent over the summer months and in Southern states to fall from 26 to 23 percent.
Overall, if the administration’s outlook rings true, coal will have declined from providing 35 percent of electricity in the U.S. during the summer in 2015 — the year the Wyoming coal industry began a bust — to 25 percent in 2019.
Wyoming is the largest producer of coal in the country, and the drop in coal burned for electricity has been felt across the state, particularly in the coal communities of Campbell County. Over the last decade, Wyoming has lost more than one-quarter of its annual production from a century-high of approximately 466 million tons in 2008 to 304 million tons last year. Most of that loss hit during the bankruptcy period in 2015 and 2016, when the state’s largest coal companies filed for bankruptcy and nearly 1,000 mining jobs were cut.
With that drop in production, local and state income from the coal industry has also fallen dramatically.
The continued contraction of the coal market persists in destabilizing the Wyoming industry. The third-largest coal company in the state, Cloud Peak Energy, filed for bankruptcy Friday, facing heavy debt and thinning margins.
Coal’s loss is other industries’ gain. Natural gas has been the most direct competitor of coal during the summer months, from 35 percent in 2015 to 40 percent forecast for this summer.
But the burgeoning wind industry is also driving the changing power mix. Renewable power use during the summer has jumped with non-hydropower sources — wind and solar — providing 6 percent of power in 2015 and 9 percent of power predicted for this summer. Of that 9 percent, 6 percent is expected to come from wind.
The wind industry’s growth has not fully passed Wyoming by. The state’s consistent high-wind areas have attracted multiple developers, from the Chokecherry Sierra Madre wind project in development south of Rawlins to the three new wind farms that the utility Rocky Mountain Power intends to build.
The Chokecherry project, with an estimated 1,000 turbines when complete, would double the state’s installed wind capacity.