Why GAO Did This Study
Coal is a key domestic fuel source and an important contributor to the U.S. economy. Most coal produced in the United States is used to generate electricity. In 2011, 1,387 coal-fueled electricity generating units produced about 42 percent of the nation's electricity. After decades of growth, U.S. coal production and consumption have fallen, primarily due to declines in the use of coal to generate electricity.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), using coal to generate electricity is associated with health and environmental concerns such as emissions of sulfur dioxide, a pollutant linked to respiratory illnesses, and carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas linked to climate change. In response to recent environmental regulations and changing market conditions, such as the recent decrease in the price of natural gas, power companies may retire some units, which could affect the coal fleet's generating capacity--the ability to generate electricity--and the amount of electricity generated from coal. Power companies may also retrofit some units by installing controls to reduce pollutants.
GAO was asked to examine (1) how the fleet of coal-fueled electricity generating units may change in the future in terms of its generating capacity and other aspects and (2) the future use of coal to generate electricity in the United States and key factors that could affect it. GAO conducted a statistical analysis of plans for retiring coal-fueled units, interviewed stakeholders, and reviewed information on industry plans and long-term forecasts by EIA and others. GAO is not making any recommendations in this report.