Despite Trump proudly rolling back at least 85 environmental rules to prop it up, America is mining and burning less coal today than it has in over four decades. Since the 2016 election, 27% of the entire coal-fired power fleet has retired—with many more closures expected. As the King dies, two questions remain: what will take its place? And who will clean up the industry’s mess? L. Michael Buchsbaum explores these questions and more in the first of a series treating America’s Energy Transition.
Falling off his throne
Nationwide, a flood of cheap fracked gas and ever more renewables are pushing Ole King Coal not only off his throne, but to the back of the line.
In 2008, coal-fired generation accounted for about 48% of U.S. electricity, but by 2018 its share had fallen to less than 28%. This is set to continue, according to new U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) projections, as the nation’s coal burn falls to the lowest levels in 42 years.
Dropping from over 1.1 billion tons in 2008, this year the EIA estimates that miners will only extract a projected 545.8 million tons–down another 14% from 2018’s total.
As another 8 Gigawatts (GW) of coal-fired capacity came off-line this year, coal’s projected electricity generation share is now set to average only 25%. Trump’s fantasies notwithstanding, the EIA projects only a downward slope going forward—with renewables poised to overtake coal as early as 2021.
The Great Slide
Accelerating during the Great Recession, between 2010 and the first quarter of 2019, U.S. power companies announced the retirement of more than 546 coal-fired power units, totaling some 102 GW of generating capacity. The slide peaked in 2015 when 15 GW of mostly smaller and older units comprising roughly 5% of the entire fleet shuttered en masse. The mass coal-plant die-off is set to continue: the EIA estimates that another 17 GW will shutter throughout 2025.
Even better, the cuts are getting deeper as most of the plants now coming off line are both larger and younger than the wave that retired before 2015 which averaged 129 MW of power and 56 years of service. Retirees last year had an average capacity of 350 megawatts (MW) and an average age of 46 years.
Dinosaur-burning dinosaur’s die: but not fast enough
In November, after nearly four decades of continuous operation, Pennsylvania’s largest coal-fired power plant, the massive 2.7 GW Bruce Mansfield plant began shutting down. Without buyers for its coal, almost two years ahead of schedule, its bankrupt owners gave up on efforts to keep it running.
Of all the coal plants to be retired in the U.S. in recent years, none has emitted more carbon dioxide. The giant coal plant on Arizona’s high desert average annual emissions between 2010 and 2017 were roughly equivalent to what 3.3 million passenger cars would pump into the atmosphere in a single year.
In fact, the pollution savings from just these two plants alone is equal to the combined reductions from the entire wave of coal plant shutdowns in 2015.
Sunshine states power past coal
As coal power fell nationwide, historically the U.S. Southeast remained a stronghold. But the tide has definitely shifted.
Despite being home to traditionally coal-reliant generators such as the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), Southern Company and Duke Energy, cheap fracked gas pushed out coal faster here than anywhere else in the nation. According to a new study by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), in 2008 coal generated 52% of the electricity for the nine states that they reviewed, by 2018 that figure had fallen to 22%.
Even in coal’s historic heartland–Kentucky, where as late as 2008 the King supplied almost 94% of its electricity, coal’s share has fallen by over 36%.
Deeper south in Georgia, the Southern Company, a politically powerful and deeply traditional utility empire, has long been both a stark defender of coal and committed user. Indeed over 70% of its generation through the mid-2000’s depended on it. As late as 2017, Southern’s CEO Tom Fanning still denied carbon dioxide was the primary cause of climate change. But rapidly shifting economics overruled dogma, pushing coal to just a quarter of Georgia’s power today. After waves of closures, only three coal plants continue operating there.
Down, but not out
Sadly, prophecies of coal’s demise remain premature. Even as power companies shed old coal plants like ticks off the proverbial hound, some holdout firms nevertheless invested in updates to emissions controls (not-including CO2) and operating systems in a few select behemoths, hoping to further extend their operating lives.
Often providing baseload power, their huge economies-of-scale and relative youth allow them to profitably crank out power almost 24/7. These plants continue to operate because they “have generally installed all the necessary environmental controls,” said John Larsen, who leads power-sector analysis at the Rhodium Group, an economic consulting firm. “There are no additional regulatory threats, and they are cost-effective in a world of cheap gas.”
Take Georgia’s remaining plants, which include two of the three largest in the US. One, Southern’s 3,392 MW Plant Scherer is the U.S.’s single largest point source for carbon pollution and one of the worst offenders worldwide. Not only are there no plans to close Plant Scherer, even the IEEFA concedes that it may prove to be among the last coal plants standing in America.
Renewables provide a second act
However, IEEFA also predicts that coal’s collapse “is just the opening act in what is essentially a two-stage transition that will further erode coal’s share” over the next five plus years – maybe even “zeroing” it out in the near-term all together in some states.
That second act will be driven by vast amounts of new solar and wind energy coming on-line in increasing numbers throughout the nation. Energy experts from the IEEFA, EIA and IRENA point to data showing renewables enjoying record low generation costs.