This is part of California Local's series on the energy sources that power the state, and what our energy future could be.
California aims to be 100 percent coal-free by 2026. Can other states follow suit?Anatoly Stafichuk / Pixabay Pixabay License
As California attempts to meet its goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2045, there’s one area where the state has a significant head start. Of all the fossil fuels, none spills more greenhouse gasses per BTU into the atmosphere than coal. And carbon dioxide is just one of the many harmful byproducts of coal power. Mercury, lead, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, various heavy metals and other pollutants also come from coal.
It is not a great sign, then, that the United States generates 22 percent of its electricity from burning coal (as of 2021). Worldwide, the percentage is about twice that. But don’t blame California, which draws very little of its energy from coal. According to statistics compiled by the U.S. Energy Information Institute, California in 2021 drew a mere 0.1 percent of its electricity from in-state coal. That’s less than all but the five states whose percentage is zero.
California, as of 2022, has just one functioning coal-fired power plant—the Argus Cogen plant in San Bernardino County, which has a capacity of 63 megawatts of electricity. By contrast, the state’s last operating nuclear plant, Diablo Canyon in San Luis Obispo County, has a capacity of 2.26 gigawatts, about 36 times as much as the coal plant.
Why does California consume so little coal? Probably because California produces very little coal. While the state is a prolific producer of the other two major fossil fuels—ranking fourth among U.S. states in natural gas production and seventh in oil—it contains hardly any coal reserves. Though some coal deposits exist in 47 of California’s 58 counties, the only significant coal mining in the state took place at Mt. Diablo in Contra Costa County, mostly in the 19th century.
After about four million tons were extracted from the Mt. Diablo coal fields over 50 years, the last mine there closed down in 1906.
The 4 Different Types of Coal
Smaller amounts of coal have continued to be mined throughout the state in the ensuing years. Whatever coal comes out of California is lignite, one of four categories of coal and the one considered the lowest grade, meaning that when burned it generates the least amount of heat. Coal is, of course, a fossil fuel, meaning that it is the product of heat and pressure applied to plants, algae and other organisms that died millions of years ago. But lignite is the youngest variety of coal, and never underwent the extreme levels of heat and pressure that formed higher grades, leaving it with the highest moisture content of any coal type.
Most of the lignite mined in California has not been used to create electricity at all, but instead it has become an ingredient in the wax, known as montan wax, that forms the basis for candles, shoe polish, lipstick, various industrial lubricants and other products.
The highest grade of coal is anthracite, which comprises only about one percent of all coal mined in the U.S. and is made of almost 90 percent carbon. Anthracite is used primarily in the metals industry.
The most common coal in the U.S., and the second-highest grade, is known as bituminous, which accounts for about 44 percent of all coal mined in the country. Between 100 and 300 million years old, bituminous coal is used primarily in power plants, but also in the manufacture of iron and steel. One step below bituminous coal is the aptly named sub-bituminous coal, which consists of between 35 percent and 40 percent carbon.
California’s ‘Secret’ Coal
While California produces almost no coal and uses very little for electricity, there is a significant caveat to those statistics. California as of 2019 led the country in imported electricity—that is, electricity produced in out-of-state power plants—according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
According to a 2015 investigation by SNL, an online division of the financial analysis powerhouse S&P Global, California at that time imported electricity from three main coal plants in other states: Intermountain Power Project in Utah, Navajo Generating Station in Arizona, and New Mexico’s San Juan Generating Station plant.
Since that report, the Arizona plant—once the largest coal facility in the western states— closed down, demolishing its three smokestacks in December of 2020. The New Mexico coal plant has also shuttered, finally turning off the fourth and last of its power-producing units in October of 2022. And the Utah plant, which at its height in the 1980s burned four million tons of coal per year, was scheduled to end coal-based operations in 2025 as it made a transition to burning hydrogen gas—a “clean” though controversial form of energy production, which critics say is inefficient, expensive and not entirely clean because it takes energy to produce hydrogen in the first place, though the only emission generated by hydrogen fuel itself is water.
Nonetheless, California continues to import coal-powered electricity, at least for now. In 2021, 9.5 percent of all of the state’s electricity imports came from coal plants. But California is expected to end all coal-powered energy imports by 2026, according to the state’s Energy Commission.
How to Kick Addiction to Coal
With about 40 percent of all global electricity generated by coal, how can the world rid itself of this, the dirtiest of all fossil fuels? The Canadian province of Ontario provides one example. In 2003, Ontario relied on coal for 25 percent of its energy supply. The provincial government took a staged approach to breaking its dependency on coal. Within 11 years, by 2014, the province had cut its coal power to zero, closing its four coal plants one at a time starting in 2005. The coal power capacity was replaced by electricity generated by nuclear and hydroelectric plants.
The U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) appears to favor increased nuclear power capacity as a means to shut down coal. In a 2022 report, the DoE identified 394 retired and active coal facilities that it named as potential sites for nuclear plants. Greenhouse gas emissions in a given region could be slashed by up to 86 percent when a nuclear plant replaces a coal facility, the report said.
Reusing infrastructure left in place by decommissioned coal plants—transmission lines, roads, office buildings, etc.—could also cut the costs of constructing new nuclear plants by up to 35 percent, the DoE reported.
Governments would need to change their approach to the coal industry. Like oil, coal receives billions of dollars in free cash and other forms of support from the planet’s most prolific energy-producing countries. Per a 2019 study by the United Kingdom-based independent think tank ODI, the member countries of the G20 account for 79 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, making it imperative that those countries drastically reduce their use of coal as quickly as possible.
Instead, those countries have not only failed to stop subsidizing the coal industry, they have actually increased coal subsidies, according to the report. In the years 2013 and 2014, the G20 countries averaged $17.2 billion in coal subsidies. Just three years later, by 2016-2017, that wad of cash had bloated to $47.3 billion.
In the United States, according to figures from the Environmental Energy and Study Institute, coal received about $4 billion in direct subsidies—that is, tax breaks and other types of cash infusions—in 2019. China and India are the world’s most prolific subsidizers of coal, however, showering an annual $9.5 billion and $10.6 billion on the industry, respectively, per the ODI report.
Replacing coal with renewable energy sources would also provide a financial boon to the world, and to energy customers. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that consumers in the U.S. would save $6.5 billion per year if every unit of energy generated by coal were replaced by a unit of energy from a renewable source.
The International Monetary Fund agrees that a global switch from coal to renewable energy would create an economic boon—saving what the IMG estimates would be $78 trillion dollars by the end of the 21st century. That would necessitate governments shifting their subsidy payouts from coal and other fossil fuels to the development of renewable energy. To reap the economic benefits, the IMF estimates, an individual government should plan on financing 10 percent of all costs required to make the transition.