Coal wasn’t the main source of American electricity for one month this year, for the first time ever

You load 16 tons, and what do you get?
You load 16 tons, and what do you get?
Image: AP Photo
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The industrial revolution was powered by massive heaps of coal, burned to produce the steam and then the electricity that helped forge the Western world’s way of life.

And so, in many places, it has remained. The US, the UK, China and India are just a few of the economies still heavily reliant on coal power. But there are signs that in the US, things are changing.

In April, the US produced more of its electricity from natural gas—still a fossil fuel, but much less polluting—than from coal, according to data (pdf) from the International Energy Agency.

Measured over the course of the year, coal is still king. But low gas prices, increased regulation on emissions, and the build-up of alternative energy sources like renewables have been pushing the two power sources closer toward parity for years.

For a couple of months in 2012 natural gas became particularly cheap, and looked likely to overtake coal, the IEA said. But it didn’t actually happen until this year.

In April, gas was cheap again, as coal power stations were going offline in the spring as they typically do for routine maintenance. That means the overtake was a “temporary aberration” due to seasonality, said IEA analyst Tyler Hodge, but one that “points to a longer-term trend arising because of the relative costs of the two fuels.”