U.S. states import billions of dollars in coal

By Lisa Gibson | May 31, 2010
Three dozen states are collectively spending billions of dollars annually on imported coal, hundreds of times more than what they spend on renewable energy development and research, according to a Union of Concerned Scientists report released May 18.

"Burning Coal, Burning Cash: Ranking the States that Import the Most Coal" ranks the 38 states that are net importers of domestic and foreign coal based on federal data from 2008. "Almost all states burn coal for electricity, but only a few mine for it," said Barbara Freese, report co-author and UCS senior climate and energy policy advocate, during a May 18 press conference to discuss the report. The subject of the report is the money spent on that coal, Freese said. "We maintain that ratepayers in the states would be better served if this money was [kept] at home and used [for] readily-available clean energy technology," said Marchant Wentworth, UCS assistant climate and energy legislative director.

About 63 percent of U.S. coal consumption comes from Wyoming, West Virginia and Kentucky. Foreign coal, which totaled about $1.8 billion for a 16-state supply in 2008 and accounts for an astounding 83 percent of coal consumption in Massachusetts, comes mainly from Colombia, according to the report. "One of the most surprising findings of the report is the amount of coal we import from foreign sources," said Jeff Deyette, report co-author and UCS assistant director of energy research and analysis. Although foreign imports tripled between 1999 and 2008, the U.S. still exports more coal than it imports.

The first-of-its kind report uses six categories to rank state dependence on coal imports: total spending on net imported coal; spending on net imported coal per state resident; spending on international coal imports; amount of net coal imports by weight; spending relative to the size of the state economy; and reliance on net imports relative to total power use. A list of top 10 states was developed for each category.

Georgia spent the most on net coal imports in 2008 at $2.6 billion, followed by North Carolina, Texas, Florida, Ohio, Alabama, Michigan, Tennessee, Indiana and Missouri, all spending more than $1 billion. The UCS has dubbed the group the "Billion Dollar Club," joined by South Carolina, according to the report. Georgia is the only state that appears on every list.

Twenty-four net-importing states ranked in one or more of the six categories, but states in the Midwest and Southeast dominate, according to the report. Of the 29 states that have adopted a renewable energy standard (RES), North Carolina is the only one in the Southeast, according to Deyette, a disappointing statistic when taking into account the abundant forest resources in the region. In addition, several wood pellet plants in the Southeast as well as on the East Coast are exporting their products to Europe instead of selling them domestically.

The U.S. has a reservoir of untapped renewable energy potential, Deyette said, citing the Southeast. Some states, such as Iowa and Massachusetts, have ratepayer-funded energy efficiency programs, one of the lowest-cost means of decreasing coal imports, he added. "Many states that are the most dependent on imports are lagging in these policies," he said.

But it's not all bad news. Centerview, Mo.-based Show Me Energy Cooperative, the first non-profit, farmer-owned cooperative in the U.S., produces several tons of pellets per hour and sells them domestically at half the cost of propane, said Steve Flick, president of the board of directors. "We're the real deal." The cooperative manufactures its pellets using switchgrass, blue stem and other crops grown by farmers in a 100-mile radius, along with damaged wood. The feedstock is in ample supply and keeps up with the energy value of coal, Flick said.

Facilities such as Show Me Energy's, along with federal policies such as an RES, will help wean the nation off coal. An RES needs to be "stronger than business as usual" to be effective, Wentworth emphasized, in excess of 20 to 22 percent by 2020. "We already know this approach works because 29 states already have enforceable standards in place," he said.