Coal has long been a leading source of power in the United States. However, with newer, cleaner energy sources infiltrating the nation’s power grid, our country’s dependence on – and opinion of – coal has fallen over the years.
A 10-year joint study from Muhlenberg College’s Institute of Public Opinion and the University of Michigan reveals that Americans’ attitudes toward coal has shifted significantly, regardless of political party affiliation or their own state’s reliance on the fossil fuel.
The study, which began in 2008, sent National Surveys on Energy and Environment in 2016 to determine whether the public supports a “total phasing out of coal.” According to the NSEE, 49% of Democrats and 23% of Republicans favored the idea, while roughly 50% of those surveyed opposed a total coal phase-out.
It has been just two years since the NSEE introduced the question regarding coal, and the 2017 survey already indicates a “statistically significant” change in survey responses; the 2017 survey shows that only 34% of Americans are opposed to phasing out coal, and opposition among Republicans dropped from 47% to 33%.
So what has changed?
Several factors could have influenced the shift in public opinion on coal from 2016 to 2017, but the most likely is the emergence of the U.S. as a global superpower of natural gas production. In 2016, natural gas’ use in the electricity grid grew from 21% to 34%, while coal’s usage fell from 48% of the grid to 30%. And although 2018 has so far seen a slight increase in coal productivity (partly thanks to the Trump administration’s push for “clean coal”), natural gas is projected to produce an average of 81.7 Bcf/d through the rest of the year – a record high for annual average growth.
Rachel Gleason, executive director of Pennsylvania Coal Alliance, argues that the NSEE coal question doesn’t provide enough context or explain what Americans would lose in a diversified power grid. While this argument is valid, several newer sources of power are being added to the grid every day, from on-and off-shore windfarms to residential solar panels to geothermal energy.
The scientists behind the study also make clear that they are not advocating for a total phasing out of coal or trying to trivialize coal’s importance to the energy industry or economy; they are simply trying to gage the public’s perception on coal’s national footprint. What the study conclusively indicates is that coal’s continued decline in the U.S., and the respective rise of other viable power sources, demonstrates coal is no longer the player in the national psyche as it has been in the past.