Burning Coal, Burning Cash (2010)

August 2010
Importing coal to produce electricity is an economic drain on states that rely heavily on coal-fired power.

UPDATE January 2014: Burning Coal, Burning Cash analysis updated with new 2012 state coal import data. Learn more about the latest findings.

The cost of importing coal is a major drain on the economies of many states that rely heavily on coal-fired power. Thirty-eight states were net importers of coal in 2008—from other states and, increasingly, other nations. Burning Coal, Burning Cash shows the scale of this annual drain on state economies, and suggests how they can keep more of those funds in-state through investments in energy efficiency and homegrown renewable energy.

In this report, we rank states' dependence on imported coal in each of six categories, and list the top 10 states on each measure. The six measures include net spending on imported coal, net weight of imported coal, per capita spending on imported coal, spending on coal relative to the size of the state economy, reliance on net coal imports relative to total power use, and spending on international coal imports.

Twenty-five states appear on at least one of these six lists. Georgia ranks in the top 10 in all categories—the only state to do so (Figure 1). (The report profiles electricity production and opportunities for saving power in 24 of those states—all except Virginia, which, though it imports a lot of foreign coal, is not a net coal importer).

These 25 states appear on at least one of our six lists of the 10 most-dependent states, based on different measures.

Every state has opportunities to cost-effectively reduce its coal use by boosting energy efficiency and developing in-state renewable resources.  The benefits of energy efficiency and renewable energy policies are even greater for states that now rely on imported coal, because such policies channel funds into local economic development—funds that would otherwise leave the state.

Of course, state reliance on imported coal for producing electricity creates more than economic problems. Burning coal also causes serious harm to public health, the global climate, and the overall environment. Indeed, coal plants are the nation's largest source of carbon dioxide, the main cause of global warming. State and federal policies promoting energy efficiency and renewable energy, and capping carbon emissions, are essential to protect our health, climate, and environment, and to accelerate the growth of a clean energy economy.

How to Reduce States' Dependence on Imported Coal

States can:

  • adopt or raise standards for renewable energy
  • adopt or raise standards for energy efficiency
  • increase funding for effective energy efficiency programs
  • refuse to permit new coal plants
  • shut down the dirtiest coal plants 

The federal government can:

  • Put a price on carbon emissions—this will encourage utilities to reduce their use of fossil fuels, especially coal
  • Pass stable, long-term policies to increase the deployment of renewables , including a renewable electricity standard (RES), tax and financial incentives, and more funding for research and development
  • Aggressively promote implementation of strong energy efficiency measures, including building codes, appliance and equipment standards, and an energy efficiency resource standard for electricity providers. 

Download the state fact sheets:

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