In coal-reliant West, a shift to natural gas, renewables

For the first time in 30 years, carbon-dioxide emissions from coal-fired plants are dropping, due to the slow retirement of old coal plants. But the West is still more reliant on coal for electricity than states in the East.

Susan Montoya Bryan/AP/File
This 2006 file photo shows the Four Corners Power Plant, one of two coal-fired plants in northwest New Mexico, near Farmington. Federal regulators have adopted a new rule that gives operators of this power plants in the Southwest a choice of either trimming nitrogen oxide emissions by 87 percent or moving forward with plans to shutter three of the plant's five generating units.

A recent report by Western Resources Advocates, a Colorado-based resource and environmental policy organization, highlights the fact that, for the first time in 30 years, carbon dioxide emissions resulting from coal-fueled power generation in the Mountain West region of the United States are dropping.

While that fossil fuel still plays a major role in bringing power to the American West, the slow retirement of aging coal plants and their replacement with natural gas and renewable energy power generation has seen a major change in energy trends in the area, encompassing New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming. With more than 58 percent of electricity in the western half of the country still being produced by coal-fired plants compared to the national average of 42 percent, there is certainly still room for improvement, but the trend is heartening to those with an interest in alternative energy sources.

 Natural gas, at 22 percent of all energy produced, weighs in as the second largest player in energy production in the Mountain West region and, with recent efforts by utility companies to focus more of their research, development, and deployment efforts on that coal alternative, that number is expected to rise sharply in the coming years; Xcel Energy, Colorado’s largest consumer electricity producer, predicts a rise in its use of natural gas from 24 percent in 2011 to 29 percent in 2018, alone.

Despite these promising figures, coal cannot be counted out just yet; an additional seven coal-fired plants with about 2,200 MW of generating capacity have been opened in the Mountain West since 2005, further outlining our continued reliance on fossil fuels as the industry works towards exploring economically feasible ways in which to take advantage of alternative energy sources.

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