New wind and solar projects can deliver cheaper electricity than 74% of the remaining coal plants in the United States, putting 211 gigawatts (that’s 211 billion watts) at risk from cleaner, less expensive competitors.
The percentage increases to 86% by 2025 as renewable energy costs continue to fall, according to a report released Monday by non-partisan think tank Energy Innovation and Vibrant Clean Energy. The study shows that “it’s increasingly more expensive to operate existing coal plants than build clean energy alternatives,” the Cable News Network reports, in a post republished by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.
“U.S. coal plants are in more danger than ever before,” said Energy Innovation Director of Electricity Policy Mike O’Boyle. “Nearly three-quarters of U.S. coal plants are already ‘zombie coal,’ or the walking dead.”
The report shows that “not a single coal-fired power plant along the Ohio River will be able to compete on price with new wind and solar power by 2025,” InsideClimate News notes. “The same is true for every coal plant in a swath of the South that includes the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.”
InsideClimate says the report spins off from higher-level analysis showing that coal loses out in a cost competition against renewables, but brings it down to the state and plant level.
“My big takeaway is the breadth and universality of this trend across the continental U.S. and the speed with which things are changing,” O’Boyle said.
Energy Innovation senior fellow and report co-author Eric Gimon compared the existing fleet of U.S. coal plants to “an old jalopy you inherited.” But “unlike those who keep up old cars as a labour of love,” Unearthed reports. “if you’re a person who likes to be able to turn on a light switch, you’re not interested in where the power is coming from: You just want it to be cheap and reliable. Coal isn’t the former, nor is it necessary the latter anymore.”
InsideClimate’s coverage looks at how the transition could play out in different regions, and in utilities with different business models.
While the Energy Innovation findings are in line with other similar studies, InsideClimate says they diverge from a recent Bloomberg New Energy Finance study that compared coal against all competing electricity sources, including natural gas. BNEF co-author William Nelson “says he is leery of comparing the costs of building new wind and solar to the costs of operating existing coal plants because a coal plant is capable of running around the clock, which makes it a different type of resource than wind and solar unless there is large-scale battery storage,” writes reporter Dan Gearino. “He thinks natural gas prices are an essential part of the conversation in places such as the Ohio Valley, where gas is plentiful and inexpensive.” But Rice University engineering professor Daniel Cohan said future price uncertainties make gas “more of a gamble” for power plant owners than wind or solar. “He thinks there is more certainty that wind and solar will continue to get less expensive and that their prices can serve as a useful comparison for coal,” Gearino writes.