The last month has seen news and feature coverage that, almost without exception, pointed to the continuing, rapid demise of coal-fired electricity generation, across the United States and around the world—notwithstanding Donald Trump’s dogged determination to save one of the industries that helped pave his way to the White House two years ago.
From U.S. utilities, to analysts in the UK, to public protesters in Vietnam, the message is clear: a phaseout that is one of the preconditions of the drive to get climate change under control is continuing, and picking up momentum. The latest contribution was a report last week by independent researchers at New York-based Rhodium Group that foresaw half of America’s coal capacity shutting down by 2030 in the absence of “market interventions at a grand scale”.
Trump is trying to patch together exactly that level of intervention, in the form of a coal and nuclear bailout that The Brattle Group priced as high as US$70 billion over two years in a report issued last month. While analysis by the coal lobby put the tab at $4 billion, Brattle’s review told a different story.
“Working off of the scant details presented in a draft memorandum released by Bloomberg in May,” Greentech Media reports, Brattle “analyzed several scenarios the administration might employ to support nuclear and coal-fired power plants.” A flat-rate payment of $50 per kilowatt to all coal and nuclear facilities would cost $16.7 billion per year. Another option, a sliding scale of $43 to $58 per kilowatt for plants that need it, would cost $9.7 to $17.2 billion per year.
“Stopping or slowing the next wave of retirements would require market interventions at a grand scale—with costs and market distortions that may make such actions a hard sell,” Brattle concluded.
“The draft memo suggested facilities would receive payments for two years, putting high-end cost estimates north of $34 billion for the duration of the program,” Greentech stated. “If the administration moves forward with a plan that pays facilities back for capital already invested in power plants, in addition to operating shortfalls, it bumps the price to $20 billion to $35 billion per year.”
Invoking the 1950 Defense Production Act to justify the bailout on national security grounds “would be a blatant misuse of the law, which came into effect at the outset of the Korean War and with the intent of ensuring rapid mobilization of U.S. industries within the larger context of the Cold War. And it would be costly for anyone who pays an electric bill,” the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) editorialized.
“The proposal to employ the act amounts to an intervention in energy markets and a bailout for unprofitable power plants that can no longer compete against natural gas and renewables,” IEEFA added. “Two companies in particular have championed a bailout: FirstEnergy and Murray Energy, which are both struggling with outdated business models that wrongly assume American demand for coal will never end. A fast-moving transition away from coal is enveloping the American electricity industry, however, and utility executives themselves have acknowledged and embraced this reality. The CEO of Xcel, one of the nation’s largest utilities, told an industry convention earlier this year that it was ‘just a matter of when’ the U.S. would retire its coal fleet.”
Amy Farrell, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), called the cost figures in the Brattle Group study “a steep price to pay in an era of U.S. energy abundance, when independent regulators and grid operators agree that orderly power plant retirements do not constitute an emergency.” The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, which produced the lowballed estimate, contended that “while $4 billion per year is not trivial, it is tiny compared to other investments for national security.”
The Brattle Group study was funded by a coalition of organizations that included AWEA, Advanced Energy Economy, and the Natural Gas Supply Association.
The more recent Rhodium Group analysis showed how much difference that level of extreme intervention could make. Even with the most favourable market conditions for coal, the industry would lose at least 71 gigawatts of capacity by 2030, about 65% more than utilities are currently planning. That would boost capacity factors from 55% in 2017 to as much as 70%, but still leave coal generation “at levels last seen in the early 1980s”.
But that’s still better news for coal than the scenario that would develop if it had to compete head to head with other electricity supply options. “The cliff gets steeper still if renewable energy costs decline along the most optimistic path and natural gas prices stay near recent lows at $2.50/mmbtu,” the Rhodium study notes. “If natural gas prices stay low, renewable energy costs decline quickly, and electricity demand remains weak, the U.S. coal fleet could be nearly half its current size by 2030, with generation at levels not seen since 1965.” A “huge swath of the nuclear fleet” could be undercut, as well.
While the analysis played out and the White House strategy took shape, the daunting news for coal continued to accumulate. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reported coal shipments at their lowest level in a decade, 36% below 2008. Alliant Energy announced plans in early August to eliminate coal-fired power in Iowa and Michigan and invest $2 billion in renewable energy, less than two weeks after the Great Plains Institute projected that the entire U.S. Midwest could shift its grid from 77% coal and natural gas today to 100% carbon-free by 2050.
“Essentially, that means more wind, more solar, more energy efficiency,” said program consultant Franz Litz. “It also means really thinking hard about those existing nuclear plants, which don’t have air emissions and could be an important part of the mix when we get out to 2050 and need to be generating our electricity without putting carbon into the air.”
Already, any efficiencies that may once have played to the coal industry’s benefit are turning the other way. Last month, a new satellite survey by Appalachian Voices, Duke University, West Virginia University, Google, and SkyTruth found that mountaintop strip mining is now scarring three times as much land to produce a ton of coal as it did in the 1980s. And the wider U.S. electricity grid is in trouble, as well, with the cost of generating a megawatt of electricity rising 74% over the last two decades, according to Wired.
“The regulatory structure basically paid utilities to build power plants, and charge customers for the cost of those plants through bills, but didn’t provide much incentive for the utilities to be efficient,” said Penn State energy policy specialist Seth Blumsack. As that system faces lower demand and competition from cheaper energy and energy efficiency, “you don’t need a huge amount of people to leave to cause a huge issue with the grid,” added Sonny Garg, head of energy research for data analytics firm Uptake Technologies.
Nor can coal companies take much solace from production or demand outside North America: The UK’s National Grid is on the verge of going coal-free in the summer months, a CoalSwarm analysis in late July predicted a peak in global coal demand on the horizon, and an official in Vietnam acknowledged public opposition to new coal plants.
“The location of coal-fired thermal power plants has become increasingly difficult due to the lack of support from the locality and people where the plant is to be built,” the official stated.