Cyclists in Alexandria, Virginia, like the one pictured above, will be able to breathe easier soon; the coal-fired Potomac River Generating Station (in the background) is slated to close by October 2012. It is just one of dozens of coal plants across the United States that energy companies announced in 2011 that they would be shutting down.
Faced with new, tougher federal clean air regulations that would require expensive retrofits to older facilities, along with the opportunity to switch to cheap natural gas, the U.S. electricity industry is moving in a direction long sought by environmentalists.
Although the trend has only begun, the results are already evident. During the first quarter of 2011, coal's share of electricity generation in the United States was smaller than that of any other Q1 in 30 years, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
But in China and the rest of Asia, demand for coal continues to grow apace, leading the U.S. coal industry to push for ports and other export facilities that will allow them to turn a profit and alter the U.S. trade balance with energy exports. Environmentalists, on the other hand, think growing U.S. coal exports simply kick a dirty fuel next door, where its increased use will have dire consequences for the entire carbon-saturated planet.