States producing the most electricity from coal

Written by:
July 30, 2019
SAUL LOEB/AFP // Getty Images

States producing the most electricity from coal

Coal power in the last decade has dropped by 40%. Today, nearly 90% of the coal mined in the United States is used for electrical power generation, which accounts for a dwindling 29.9% of the national energy portfolio, according to the Brookings Institute. While the downturn in coal use has resulted in a reduction of nearly 600 million metric tons in carbon dioxide emissions from 2005 to 2017, environmentalism is not the only explanation for coal use becoming passé.

Coal is inefficient due to its low energy density and price compared to the more abundant natural gas. Coupled with state and federal policy-supported renewable energy generation—such as solar and wind power—coal use is slated to continue dropping for the foreseeable future. With new coal-fired plants being more expensive to build than natural gas, renewable energy alternatives, and the nation’s abundant supply in natural gas, investments in coal energy generation are unlikely to make a return on investment.

However, for states that produce large amounts of coal and have existing coal-burning facilities, the calculation may look different. Particularly for places without resources to retrofit their infrastructure to take advantage of the natural gas boom, using existing infrastructure to burn coal may not be environmentally friendly, but it may be the most economical thing to do. Continued use of coal-burning plants may be a way of keeping the state’s coal mining industry afloat. It is important to note that only two states in the U.S. have no coal energy production.

Using 2017 data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Stacker prepared a list of the states that produce the most electricity via coal-burning and ranked each state by the percentage of total electric power industry from coal.

While the current administration has started rolling back or reversing policies to prolong coal mining and coal power generation, a future administration will probably take on an aggressive greenhouse gas remediation course in response to current policy actions, effectively making current actions with the coal industry temporary means of relief in postponing the inevitable.

Keep reading to learn why being a coal-burning state may say more about a state’s economic health than intended.

You may also like: Wealthiest counties in the U.S.

#50. Rhode Island

- Percent of electric power industry from coal: 0%

Rhode Island is one of the two states in the United States that does not produce coal. The tiny state also has the second-lowest electricity generation in the nation. Like most Northeastern states, most of the state’s generated electricity comes from natural gas.

#49. Vermont

- Percent of electric power industry from coal: 0%

Vermont is the only other state besides Rhode Island that has no domestic coal mining. The state is the smallest regarding electricity generation, with much of its electricity coming from its neighbors—New York and Massachusetts. Most of Vermont’s domestic energy comes from nuclear plants.


#48. Idaho

- Percent of electric power industry from coal: 0.1%

Like the Northeast, states west of the Rocky Mountains are not known for their coal deposits. Idaho is at the forefront of renewable energy generation, with much of its domestic energy generation coming from hydroelectricity.


#47. California

- Percent of electric power industry from coal: 0.1%

A West Coast state, California is coal-poor. Coupled with environmental standards limiting atmospheric pollutants, coal burning is decidedly unpopular in the state, despite California being one of the nation’s largest energy producers. Natural gas is the primary source of California’s energy, followed by geothermal sources.


#46. Connecticut

- Percent of electric power industry from coal: 0.6%

As with most New England and New York, Connecticut is neither geologically suited nor politically inclined to burn coal for energy. Connecticut is nuclear powered, although natural gas follows as a close source.


#45. New York

- Percent of electric power industry from coal: 0.6%

A large part of New York state sits on the Marcellus Shale or Marcellus Formation, which is partly responsible for coal and oil reserves for Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio. The Marcellus Shale has the nation’s largest natural gas reserves, leading to an explosion of hydrofracturing in the state and throughout northern Appalachia. However, the state’s weak positioning on the Utica Shale makes New York—while rich in natural gas—poor in coal and oil. Strong environmental regulations limiting coal burning in the state also helped to keep coal-burning electrical generators out of New York. The state uses natural gas for electricity generation, followed by nuclear power and hydroelectricity from the St. Lawrence River and Niagara Falls.

#44. Maine

- Percent of electric power industry from coal: 0.6%

Coal deposits in the United States are typically contained in a geographic region near a major mountain chain—like the Appalachian Mountains or the Rockies—where a conflation of overlapping shale and limestone deposits push bituminous materials close to the surface. States that engage in coal-burning either have abundant supplies of coal or insufficient resources or lack of public demand for the state to invest in upgrading its energy infrastructure. However, Maine—an affluent Northeastern state—meets neither of these requirements, and the state gets its electricity from natural gas and hydroelectric.


#43. New Jersey

- Percent of electric power industry from coal: 1.6%

New Jersey has more power generators than its neighbors. This is mostly due to interstate power sales and a large amount of industry in the state. New Jersey, like many of its Northeastern neighbors, is nuclear-powered, with natural gas as a backup.


#42. New Hampshire

- Percent of electric power industry from coal: 1.6%

New Hampshire is the northern terminus of the Appalachian Mountains. Despite that, much of New Hampshire’s southern geology is composed of mountainous granite and not shale. New Hampshire gets most of its power from nuclear generation, with small percentages coming from wood-burning and natural gas.


#41. Oregon

- Percent of electric power industry from coal: 2.8%

Unlike places in the Northeast or Appalachia, Oregon has no abundant source of consumables ready for energy production. Oregon, however, has many rivers and waterfalls. The state relies on hydroelectricity for most of its domestic energy production, followed by natural gas. Most of the state’s power generation is concentrated near its border with Washington state.


#40. Massachusetts

- Percent of electric power industry from coal: 3.5%

While the eastern part of the state is mountainous, and while there are coal-burning energy facilities in the northeastern corner of the state near the Vermont border, Massachusetts follows the same pattern of other Northeastern states. Massachusetts relies on natural gas, with a slight dependence on nuclear generation.


#39. Washington

- Percent of electric power industry from coal: 4.7%

Like Oregon and Idaho, Washington has few coal reserves. While the state has coal-burning facilities in its southeastern corner, these pale in scale to the state’s hydroelectric operations. Washington state burns the most coal compared to other Pacific Northwestern states. The state, despite this, uses more natural gas, and—as of 2010—has hydroelectric production more than eight times greater than its coal-generated electricity yield.


#38. Delaware

- Percent of electric power industry from coal: 4.8%

Delaware is relatively small and so is its domestic energy production. The state primarily imports its energy from neighboring states. As of 2010, the state’s natural gas electricity generation was on par with its coal-burning energy generation, which is unique for mid-Atlantic states.


#37. Nevada

- Percent of electric power industry from coal: 4.9%

Nevada is known for being the site of the first nuclear bomb tests and for being the home of Hoover Dam. While the region is rich in uranium, it is relatively coal-poor. The state produces more energy from coal-burning than from hydroelectricity, and is largely powered by natural gas.


#36. Mississippi

- Percent of electric power industry from coal: 7.7%

Mississippi is an “odd duck” power generation-wise. Despite places in the Southeast being one of the most prolific coal-producing states after those in the eastern Rockies and central Appalachian regions, Mississippi has relatively few coal-burning energy generators. This may be due to Mississippi being situated in a watershed, which encourages natural gas discovery: The state is a natural gas-based electricity producer.


#35. Alaska

- Percent of electric power industry from coal: 8.6%

If there is a state to be fueled only by petroleum-fueled energy generation, it would be Alaska, where some of the largest oil fields in the nation are located. However, this is not reality. While natural gas drives residential and commercial energy generation in the state, coal is the energy source of choice for industrial operations. Nuclear energy comes in third.


#34. Virginia

- Percent of electric power industry from coal: 11.9%

Virginia is a state with a split personality: While the northern and eastern parts of Virginia are mostly affluent, the state’s core and western sections resemble the southern Midwest in wealth disparity and rural composition. This may help explain why nuclear power and coal are both the state’s leading sources of energy, followed by natural gas.


#33. Louisiana

- Percent of electric power industry from coal: 12.6%

As explained earlier, swamps and marshlands are not ideal for coal mining. Primarily a nuclear power user, the state does have coal-burning power generators near its Texas border. Louisiana also uses significant amounts of natural gas.


#32. Hawaii

- Percent of electric power industry from coal: 14%

Hawaii finds itself in the unique position of being the only state that is not connected to other states by a road connection, making energy or energy-generation materials imports cost-prohibitive. While Hawaii is a volcanic archipelago and therefore has coal deposits, Hawaii is the only state that utilizes petroleum as its primary fuel for electricity generation. Petroleum is easier to transport than coal, and the state’s high military presence encourages heavy petroleum use.


#31. Florida

- Percent of electric power industry from coal: 15.7%

Florida shares the same shale formations that are responsible for Georgia’s and Alabama’s coal industries. While there are small coal-burning energy generators in the northern part of the state, Florida’s largest coal-burning plants are in the central parts of the state. Florida overwhelmingly prefers natural gas over coal by a ratio of 2 to 1, the state’s coal use is among the largest for the Southeast.


#30. South Dakota

- Percent of electric power industry from coal: 18.9%

South Dakota is a combination of mountains to the west and plains to the east. While the terrain would suggest and encourage coal production, the state also makes significant use of its geology through hydroelectricity.


#29. South Carolina

- Percent of electric power industry from coal: 19.5%

South Carolina is another “odd duck” state energy generation-wise. While primarily a nuclear-powered state, South Carolina is one of the few states where wood-burning makes up a significant part of the state’s energy portfolio. Coal-burning, however, is the state’s second-largest source of energy.


#28. Pennsylvania

- Percent of electric power industry from coal: 22.3%

The convergence of the Marcellus and Ohio Shales make Pennsylvania one of the largest producers of bituminous products—including oil, coal, and natural gas—in the nation. With so many energy sources available, the state’s energy portfolio consists of coal, natural gas, nuclear, and renewables like wind and solar. The shrinkage of the coal industry in recent years, however, has pushed the state to embrace natural gas more.


#27. Alabama

- Percent of electric power industry from coal: 22.5%

Alabama is predominantly a coal-burning state, and it is home to the sixth-largest coal power station in the United States, James H. Miller Jr. Electric Generating Plant in West Jefferson. While natural gas and nuclear make up a significant part of the state’s energy portfolio, Alabama’s reliance on coal power underlies both deeper problems with the state’s aging infrastructure and continued reliance on coal mining as an industry.


#26. Oklahoma

- Percent of electric power industry from coal: 23.6%

Typically, areas that are rich with oil will also have either coal or natural gas. As they are all the product of bitumen deposits, it is logical to expect to find a combination of carbon derivatives in the same area. Oklahoma, a petroleum mining hotspot, is rich in both natural gas and coal. The state utilizes both in its energy production, but as natural gas is less environmentally destructive with a lower recovery cost, there is a trend in replacing coal with natural gas.


#25. Maryland

- Percent of electric power industry from coal: 25%

It is peculiar that Maryland, an affluent state, uses as much coal as it does. While coal power is virtually unused in Maryland's commercial and industrial sectors, an overwhelming number of the state's residents are powered by coal. Maryland's reliance on coal may have a connection with the state's aging infrastructure.


#24. Georgia

- Percent of electric power industry from coal: 25.5%

Georgia is the home of the nation’s largest coal-powered generators. The Robert W. Scherer Power Plant outside of Macon and Plant Bowen outside of Euharlee are the largest and second-largest coal power plants in the nation by power capacity, respectively. Georgia’s coal power generation—as of 2010—was more significant than all other energy sources combined. By 2018, however, coal has lost its footing to natural gas.


#23. North Carolina

- Percent of electric power industry from coal: 26.8%

There are states where coal is still making a go. In North Carolina, for example, the state’s leading energy source is nuclear. However, if one was to look at North Carolina’s total energy output for 2018, nuclear, coal, and natural gas all have similar numbers.


#22. Arizona

- Percent of electric power industry from coal: 29.7%

Arizona is another nuclear-powered state. Largely desert, the state is mostly composed of Native American- and government-held lands. However, to the north, Arizona is mountainous with several coal mines. Arizona’s coal power generation is closely comparable to the state’s nuclear generation, with natural gas coming in third.


#21. Texas

- Percent of electric power industry from coal: 29.7%

Texas is another state built on the back of oil. The only contiguous state with its own power grid, Texas is the nation’s largest electricity producer, with most of the electricity coming from natural gas. Coal comes in second, followed by wind power.


#20. Illinois

- Percent of electric power industry from coal: 31.6%

Southern Illinois sits directly on the Illinois Basin, giving the region access to both coal and natural gas. While there are some smaller coal plants in northern Illinois, the southern Missouri, Indiana, and Kentucky border regions are home to some of the larger coal plants in the nation. Illinois is predominantly nuclear-powered, but it is also one of the first states where coal use dwarfs natural gas use.


#19. Tennessee

- Percent of electric power industry from coal: 35.1%

Tennessee does not have as many coal plants as its neighbors like Alabama and Kentucky. What the state lacks in quantity, it makes up for in energy yield. Tennessee is another nuclear-powered state, but—like Illinois—the state’s coal use surpasses its natural gas power.


#18. Michigan

- Percent of electric power industry from coal: 37.4%

Michigan is not a major coal-producing state. While there is a sizable concentration of coal in the state near the center of the Lower Peninsula and several mines in Saginaw, Bay, and Tuscola counties, the veins available are thin and generally considered not commercially viable. However, with the state heavily involved in automotive production, Michigan imports a large amount of coal and coke for steel production. Coal is the largest source of energy used for electricity utility production in Michigan.


#17. Kansas

- Percent of electric power industry from coal: 38.1%

Kansas is largely a plains state. While the state's most abundant energy source is coal, it's closely followed by wind, making Kansas one of the largest producers of wind power in the nation. Nuclear comes in third.


#16. Minnesota

- Percent of electric power industry from coal: 38.8%

Minnesota is another Great Plains state. Unlike other affluent states, Minnesota is a predominantly coal-burning state. Minnesota's reliance on coal may be due to the state's wealth and population being concentrated in the capital region, leaving other areas like Winona and Northfield little incentive to modernize. Southern Minnesota sits on the Decorah Shale. Nuclear and wind follow for second and third, respectively.


#15. Arkansas

- Percent of electric power industry from coal: 43.3%

Arkansas differs from its southern neighbor Louisiana in many ways, despite both being states situated on the Mississippi River. Even though Louisiana produced significantly more coal than Arkansas in 2013, Arkansas predominantly uses coal for its power generation—compared to Louisiana’s nuclear power. Natural gas and nuclear come in second and third, respectively.


#14. Iowa

- Percent of electric power industry from coal: 43.8%

Iowa is another mostly flat state. The state is powered by coal, wind, and nuclear, in that order. Not known for being a state that leads in coal production, this means that Iowa mostly imports its coal from its neighbors.


#13. Montana

- Percent of electric power industry from coal: 49.1%

Another trend common for coal-powered states is a lack of large cities. This is the case for Montana, and its open vistas and lack of major cities lent it the nickname "Big Sky Country." While hydroelectricity makes a significant presence in the state's energy portfolio, nearly two-thirds of the state's total electrical power generation was due to coal in 2010. In 2018, it was less than half.


#12. Colorado

- Percent of electric power industry from coal: 54.3%

Colorado is one of the largest coal-producing states in the United States. Falling far behind its neighbor Wyoming, Colorado’s production is enough to make the state the first on this list to have the majority of its produced energy comes from coal. Natural gas and wind come a distant second and third, respectively.


#11. New Mexico

- Percent of electric power industry from coal: 54.8%

New Mexico is another coal-natural gas-wind state. While the state’s sparse coal-burning plants are scattered along the Arizona border, they produce more than twice the energy the state receives from natural gas.


#10. Wisconsin

- Percent of electric power industry from coal: 55.1%

Similar to Illinois, Wisconsin bucks the trend of stationing coal plants away from major metropolises by having some of its largest coal-burning plants near Milwaukee and Beloit. Wisconsin’s second and third places in energy generation are natural gas and nuclear, respectively.


#9. Ohio

- Percent of electric power industry from coal: 57.2%

While the northern half of the state primarily uses nuclear and natural gas, the southern half relies mainly on coal. Particularly among the West Virginia border is the state’s largest mines and coal plants. Ohio and West Virginia are best positioned to exploit the Marcellus and Ohio Shales, making both rich in coal and natural gas.


#8. Nebraska

- Percent of electric power industry from coal: 59.8%

Nebraska is a coal-nuclear-wind state. One of the few states that do not significantly utilize natural gas, Nebraska has a relatively low electricity generation rate compared to its neighbors. Several of its largest coal plants are near the Mississippi River.


#7. North Dakota

- Percent of electric power industry from coal: 64.5%

Despite North Dakota being amid a petroleum and natural gas mining spree, due to the discovery of the Bakken Formation, the state uses neither for its electricity generation. The state uses coal and wind primarily, exploiting the mostly flat nature of the terrain.


#6. Utah

- Percent of electric power industry from coal: 70.5%

Like Nevada, Utah is a mostly desert state. Unlike Nevada, the Rockies run through Utah, giving the state access to significant coal deposits. Besides coal and natural gas, Utah is one of the largest producers of solar power in the nation.


#5. Indiana

- Percent of electric power industry from coal: 73.2%

Indiana finds itself situated on the same shale formation as Illinois, Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky, giving the southern half of the state access to some of the nation’s largest coal plants and mines. This helped to fuel the state’s industrial backbone, making Indiana one of the nation’s most productive regions.


#4. Kentucky

- Percent of electric power industry from coal: 78.2%

Much of the coal-producing region in the eastern United States is situated along the Ohio River, which includes most of Kentucky’s northern border. Natural gas comes in a distant second.


#3. Missouri

- Percent of electric power industry from coal: 79.8%

Coal tends to be found near significant rivers because erosion tends to expose major mineral veins. As the river is likely to be in an area that was upturned by glacial activity or which nurtured the type of flora that would eventually decompose into bitumen, river areas are typically good areas to find coal. Missouri has its largest coalfields and coal plants situated on the Mississippi River.


#2. Wyoming

- Percent of electric power industry from coal: 85.7%

Wyoming is mostly situated in the Rocky Mountains. Wyoming is the nation’s largest coal producer, followed by West Virginia. Unlike West Virginia, Wyoming’s economy does not heavily depend on coal mining, meaning that the state is having an easier time with the slowdown of the coal industry. Wind is Wyoming’s largest non-coal source of energy.


#1. West Virginia

- Percent of electric power industry from coal: 93.2%

West Virginia is the king of the coal producers in the east. The epicenter of the Marcellus and Ohio Shales—no state has as large a bituminous deposit as West Virginia. The resource has been both a blessing and a curse for the state. While West Virginia's coal deposits have made it historically important for the nation's economy, its current coal industry is strangling local wage growth and impeding the development of other industries. West Virginia's reliance on coal is highly problematic now that the coal industry is in decline.

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