Roughly four-fifths of U.S. coal plants are either scheduled to close by 2025 or now cost more to operate than new nearby solar or wind power would, new research shows.
The May 5 analysis comes from Energy Innovation: Policy & Technology, based in San Francisco. The work highlights the accelerating pace of the clean energy transition, even aside from the social costs of coal plant pollution.
What trends does the report show?
“Out of the 235 plants in the U.S. coal fleet, 182 plants, or 80 percent, are uneconomic or already retiring,” according to the report, which counted plants in service in 2018. Put another way, the share of total U.S. coal plant capacity from that year that won’t be competitive beyond the next few years has climbed from roughly five-eighths to three-fourths in just two years.
What does the report mean for planning ahead?
“I think of these numbers as a barometer,” said lead author Eric Gimon at Energy Innovation. “It’s a strong indicator of what’s happening in the field, but it’s not the exclusive indicator. And the fact that the barometer is changing so fast I think is significant.”
Why are more coal plants becoming noncompetitive?
The levelized costs for new solar or wind are falling faster than previously anticipated, Gimon said. Those are all-in lifetime costs for a facility divided by its energy production.
Meanwhile, the capacity factor for existing coal plants fell to 40% last year, down from 53% in 2017. A lower capacity factor means plants are being run less often and not providing full output, which increases operating and capital costs.
How does this report compare to similar work done two years ago?
Earlier work by Energy Innovation and Vibrant Clean Energy in 2019 showed that a majority of U.S. coal plant capacity already costs more to keep running than new nearby solar or wind would cost.
Numbers are not directly comparable between the reports. The new analysis uses more complete data, Gimon said, and information about estimated costs has been more rigorously reviewed. Also, relevant areas for new solar or wind are now based on grid management balancing areas and their subdivisions, as defined by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Regional Energy Deployment Systems model.
With adjustments, the 74.8% share of total U.S. coal capacity in 2020 that was either noncompetitive or already retiring was nearly as much as the 77.2% share that would have been predicted as of just two years ago. “We’re well ahead of pace,” Gimon said.
What’s special about the small share of U.S. coal plants that are still cost-competitive now, without accounting for the social costs of their pollution?
Those plants tend to be newer and larger, Gimon said. Some plants also have had access to relatively cheaper coal from Wyoming or other places.
Nonetheless, “every plant is to some extent vulnerable,” Gimon said. For example, a solar developer has acquired options for land near Nebraska’s largest coal-fired power plant and other coal plants, with an eye toward taking advantage of transmission if plants close sooner or cut back capacity.
In Ohio and elsewhere in the Midwest, most coal-fired power plants are older. A separate December 2020 analysis by Emily Grubert at the Georgia Institute of Technology found that less than one-sixth of the expected lifespan for U.S. coal-fired power plants’ capacity would remain by 2035 in any case.
What’s more competitive in Ohio?
New nearby renewables in Ohio would generally cost less than or are already within striking distance of the state’s remaining coal-fired generation. New solar power would have a slight edge over wind for more locations in Ohio, although there are about half a dozen places where costs for solar and wind would be within 10% of each other.
How do the environmental costs of coal power factor in?
The Energy Innovations analysis does not factor in the social costs of coal-fired power plants. Those include health and environmental impacts from sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxides and particulate pollution, as well as the plants’ greenhouse gas emissions that add to human-caused climate change.
In Gimon’s view, the economics undermine any justification for those harms that might once have existed. And while people who suffer health impacts aren’t easily identifiable, the harm is nonetheless real. As he sees it, the “village” of those with vested interests are essentially “sacrificing a number of foreigners to the volcano every year to keep their way of life going.”
What should policymakers do?
“I would be telling them to adapt,” said co-author Amanda Myers. The report recommends that regulators, policymakers and others “critically examine each and every coal plant in their jurisdiction given the overwhelming amount of existing coal and the rapidly changing economics of possible alternatives.” The report also suggests that energy efficiency, demand response and storage could support reliability so that roughly a quarter of U.S. coal capacity left in 2025 may not need replacement.
“If you hide your head in the sand and pretend it’s not happening, probably some of these things will happen faster and with more disruption,” Gimon added.
How do the report’s findings fit with what environmental advocates have been seeing in Ohio?
“This is a trend. This is not a surprise,” said Neil Waggoner, Ohio representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. “The costs of renewables just keep decreasing. Meanwhile, the coal plants out there are getting older. … None of these plants are spring chickens.”
Since late 2013, utilities had sought bailouts for uneconomic coal plants, Waggoner noted. Two Ohio Valley Electric Corporation plants continue to get subsidies of nearly $233,000 per day under House Bill 6, the 2019 law at the heart of an alleged $60 million conspiracy involving former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder.
Bills to either repeal just those subsidies or to repeal all of HB 6 remain pending. Meanwhile, other bills could drastically limit further wind and solar energy in the state.
“The legislature is trying to find ways to put up barriers for renewables,” Waggoner said, “while also ignoring the reality of coal in an absolute decline.”