While Pennsylvania is the third-leading coal production state in the United States, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the fossil fuel is no longer the leader in electric production in the state.
A recent EIA report found that natural-gas fired power plants have now displaced coal as the most-used energy source for power generation.
Between 2001 and 2021 natural gas generation has risen from 2% to 52% of the electricity produced in Pennsylvania. At the same time, coal generation has fallen from 57% to 12%.
The change has come at the same time as natural gas production has rapidly grown in the state, due primarily to the development of hydraulic fracturing and unconventional well technology, which has made extracting natural gas from the Marcellus Shale play in the region much easier and more economical.
Pennsylvania is now the second-largest natural-gas producing state behind only Texas, producing 7.6 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) in 2021, up from just 0.1 trillion Tcf in 2001. The Marcellus, which is the largest gas field in the U.S., began to be hydraulically fractured in Pennsylvania in the early 2000s and that development rapidly increased through the 2010s. Pennsylvania is also the second-largest electricity producer in the U.S. after Texas, generating 10% of the country’s supply.
While natural gas production In Pennsylvania grew, coal production declined 40%, the EIA said, falling from 74.1 million tons in 2001 to 42.5 million tons in 2021. Some of that decline can be attributed to the abundance and low cost of natural gas, and also to the increasing focus on reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) and greenhouse gas emissions as the U.S. moves to combat climate change. Natural gas produces less than half the emissions of coal when burned.
“With access to inexpensive natural gas, utilities and power plant operators began to close aging coal-fired power plants in Pennsylvania, many of which were built in the 1970s and 1980s, and to replace them with new natural gas-fired combined-cycle plants. Modern combined-cycle plants are more efficient that the typical coal-fired power plant, and don’t have the same costs to comply with emissions regulations,” the EIA stated.
Coal remained the largest source of energy generation in the state until 2015, when it was supplanted by nuclear power. Pennsylvania has four nuclear power plants, but in 2019 the remaining reactor at Three Mile Island nuclear power plant was shut down, and natural gas became the largest source.
With a still-abundant supply for years to come, it seems likely that natural gas will play a prominent role in the state’s future energy mix, even as efforts to move to clean, renewable energy sources continue.