3 reasons US coal power is disappearing – and a Supreme Court ruling won’t save it

Coal was the dominant fuel for U.S. power plants until 2016. This PacifiCorp power plant in Utah still uses it. George Frey/AFP via Getty Images

by Rebecca J. Davis, Stephen F. Austin State University

The U.S. coal industry chalked up a rare win this summer when the Supreme Court issued a ruling limiting the government’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. But that doesn’t mean coal-fired power plants will make a comeback.

As an economist, I analyze the coal industry, including power plant construction and retirement plans. I see three main reasons U.S. coal plants will continue to close down.

A detail related to the Supreme Court case helps tell the story. The case, West Virginia v. EPA, involved the Clean Power Plan, a set of Obama-era regulations proposed in 2015 that would have required power plants to make deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. For those powered by coal – historically the dominant source of carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. electricity sector – that likely would have meant shifting away from coal altogether.

Yet even though the Clean Power Plan never went into effect, coal use has declined so much that the U.S. power sector has already met the plan’s 2030 target.

Why the power sector is moving away from coal

At its peak in 2007, coal was responsible for almost 2 trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity generation in the U.S., equivalent to powering over 186 million homes for the year.

By 2021, that total had dropped by 55%.

The drop was due in large part to an industrywide shift in electricity generation, away from coal-fired units toward natural gas and renewable energy. That shift is happening for three main reasons.

1. Natural gas prices

Natural gas prices have decreased significantly – over 60% between 2003 and 2019 – mainly because of improvements in hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, which allow drillers to extract more gas from shale.

The influx of natural gas led to substantial increases in additions of natural gas-fired electricity generators. These natural gas power plants are newer, have similar and sometimes lower fuel costs, and are more efficient at generating electricity than the existing coal-fired generators.

They also are able to come online at full power within one to 12 hours, while a coal-fired generator can take up to 24 hours to be fully ready to produce power. Because of this necessary lead time, it is difficult to rely on coal-fired generators when demand rises and the power grid needs more electricity quickly.

For example, the electric system faces the highest demand for electricity generation between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. on weekdays. If demand spikes, a coal-fired generator will miss the window when electricity is needed. Natural gas generators can meet the demand much faster, often making them more profitable for utilities.

2. The rise of renewable energy

Solar and wind energy are now cost competitive with fossil-fueled generators, primarily because of technological advancements.

Many states and the federal government also offer incentives for renewable energy production, which lowers the cost to install them. President Joe Biden’s climate plan aims to increase those incentives. And, once built, renewable energy sources have no fuel costs and relatively low operational costs compared with coal-fired generators.

A record 17.1 gigawatts of wind capacity came online in the U.S. in 2021 after a tax incentive was extended, and 7.6 gigawatts are planned this year.

Solar energy accounts for 46% of all new electricity generating capacity expected to join the grid in 2022, about 21.5 gigawatts.

3. Environmental regulation

The government has instituted several environmental regulations over the past few decades aiming to reduce sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, mercury and other hazardous air pollutants emitted by the electric power sector.

These hazardous emissions are linked to health problems including respiratory illnesses and neurological and developmental damage, as well as smog, acid rain and climate change. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, coal-fired generators are by far the largest electricity-sector sources.

To comply with the regulations, coal power plant operators have installed scrubbers to remove the pollutants from their emissions, switched coal types to lower-sulfur coal, and invested in other methods to reduce sulfur and other impurities. As a result, costs have increased for the coal-fired fleet.

These higher environmental mitigation costs, coupled with lower wholesale electricity prices over recent years, have meant coal plant operators have had a tougher time recovering the cost of the capital investments to maintain their older coal-fired generators. Instead, many have chosen to retire those units.

Coal power’s future: More early retirements

So what does this mean for the future of U.S. coal power?

The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that coal generators account for 85% of the electric generating capacity being retired this year nationwide.

This trend is expected to continue, with substantial coal generator retirements occurring by 2030. This is a result of both market factors – cheap natural gas and affordable renewable energy – and regulatory measures.

Coal is used more widely in other countries, including China, and U.S. coal companies have increased their exports in recent years. However, at the 2021 United Nations climate change conference, over 40 countries committed to completely shift away from coal, and 20 others – including the U.S. – pledged to stop government financing of coal use, unless it includes carbon capture technology.

The Biden administration, which has struggled to get its climate policies through a deeply divided Congress, appeared to have movement on a large climate change-focused package in late July. An agreement announced by Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia included support for renewable energy and electric vehicles. The administration has been weighing new regulatory options that could further affect the cost of generating electricity with coal.

It all adds up to a difficult economic environment for U.S. coal power for the foreseeable future.

This article was updated July 28, 2022, with an agreement announced on Biden’s climate plan.

Rebecca J. Davis, Assistant Professor of Economics and Finance, Stephen F. Austin State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Illinois prepares to reboot low-income solar program to improve access for all

Read the full story from Energy News Network.

Solar and environmental justice advocates are hopeful that changes being made to an Illinois low-income solar program will help it finally catch on in the communities it was meant to serve.

Illinois Solar for All offers virtually free solar panels and guaranteed energy bill savings for residents who meet certain income or environmental justice criteria. Since its launch in 2017, though, relatively few people have taken advantage of the program and millions of allocated dollars remain unspent.

Stakeholders have pointed to various challenges and barriers with the program, but a big one has been that solar developers have no efficient way of marketing to potential customers. John Delurey, senior regional director for the nonprofit policy advocacy group Vote Solar, compared recruiting participants to finding a needle in a haystack.

Leaked: US power companies secretly spending millions to protect profits and fight clean energy

Read the full story in The Guardian.

One industry consulting firm has influenced politics across Florida, Alabama and at least six other states.

HUD accuses city of Chicago of environmental racism by moving polluters to Black, Latino neighborhoods

Read the full story in the Chicago Sun-Times.

The city of Chicago is violating the civil rights of its residents by relocating polluting businesses from white communities into Black and Latino areas that already are overwhelmed with environmental and health issues, federal officials have found after a nearly two-year investigation.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is demanding that Chicago change its unlawful planning, zoning and land-use policies so they don’t discriminate against communities of color, according to a letter HUD sent to the city.

If Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration doesn’t agree to work on a plan to overhaul its processes and policies, City Hall could lose hundreds of millions in federal housing money.

Winners: SEJ 21st Annual Awards for Reporting on the Environment

The Society of Environmental Journalists is pleased to announce the winners of the SEJ Awards for Reporting on the Environment, which honor the best stories released from February 1, 2021, through January 31, 2022, and the best books on environmental topics published in 2021.

The SEJ contest is the world’s largest and most comprehensive environmental journalism competition. This year, 485 entries in ten categories were judged by independent volunteer panels of journalists and professors.

First place winners of SEJ’s 2022 Awards for Reporting on the Environment

Visit SEJ’s website for a full list of winners and honorable mentions.

Kevin Carmody Award for Outstanding Investigative Reporting, Large
First Place

“Sacrifice Zones: Mapping Cancer-Causing Industrial Air Pollution” by Al Shaw, Lylla Younes, Ava Kofman, Lisa Song, Max Blau, Kiah Collier, Ken Ward Jr., Alyssa Johnson, Maya Miller, Lucas Waldron and Kathleen Flynn for ProPublica, with The Texas Tribune and Mountain State Spotlight

Kevin Carmody Award for Outstanding Investigative Reporting, Small

First Place

“The Department of Yes: How Pesticide Companies Corrupted the EPA and Poisoned America” by Sharon Lerner for The Intercept

Outstanding Beat Reporting, Large

First Place

“Fiona Harvey COP26 Beat Reporting” by Fiona Harvey for The Guardian

Outstanding Beat Reporting, Small

First Place

“EPA Exposed” by Sharon Lerner for The Intercept

Outstanding Explanatory Reporting, Large

First Place

“The Greenland Connection” by Tony Bartelme (senior projects reporter) and Lauren Petracca (photographer and videographer) for The Post and Courier

Outstanding Explanatory Reporting, Small

First Place

“Troubled Waters: The Salton Sea Project” by Angela Chen, Tim Kiley, Kent Kay, Sarah-Jayne Arthur, Rebecca Johnson and Justin Tarpening for KESQ

Outstanding Feature Story, Large

First Place

“Climate Change Is Exposing the Racism Behind an Oregon Water War” by Jeremy Raff, Josh Rushing, Adrienne Haspel, Erik Ljung, Laila Al-Arian and Darya Marchenkova for Al Jazeera English

Outstanding Feature Story, Small

First Place

“The Collapse of Wild Red Wolves Is a Warning That Should Worry Us All” by Jimmy Tobias for The Nation

Outstanding Student Reporting

First Place

“Hogwash” Cameron Oglesby, Duke University, published by Grist

Rachel Carson Environment Book Award

First Place

“Wild Souls: Freedom and Flourishing in the Non-Human World” by Emma Marris. Published by Bloomsbury Publishing.

Climate change: new rules for companies to stop EU-driven deforestation globally

Read the full story from the European Union.

To fight climate change and biodiversity loss globally, Environment MEPs want only deforestation-free products to be allowed on the EU market.

The Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee today adopted its position with 60 votes to 2 and 13 abstentions on the Commission proposal for a regulation on deforestation-free products to halt EU-driven global deforestation.

The new law would make it obligatory for companies to verify (so-called “due diligence”) that goods sold in the EU have not been produced on deforested or degraded land. This would assure consumers that the products they buy do not contribute to the destruction of forests outside the EU, including of irreplaceable tropical forests, and hence reduce the EU’s contribution to climate change and biodiversity loss globally.

MEPs also want companies to verify that goods are produced in accordance with human rights protected under international law and the rights of indigenous people in addition to the relevant laws and standards in the country where the products are produced.

Indonesian startups use recycling apps to spin garbage into gold

Read the full story at Nikkei Asia.

Startups in Indonesia are offering points and other rewards in exchange for recyclables as they look to turn the country’s growing waste problem into business opportunities.

The Open Access Opportunity: Building the Third Space

Read the full post from the Higher Education Policy Institute.

In her recent blog, Victoria Gardner explored whether open access was ‘the end or the means’? In this blog Matt Flinders argues that open access represents little more that the latest stage of a complex and ongoing shift in the architecture of knowledge. Open access is definitely not ‘the end’ of anything – it signals the need to think more systemically and ambitiously about knowledge translation and therefore the ‘third space’. 

UMich study finds correlation between Flint water crisis and poor academic performance

Read the full story in the Michigan Daily.

A recent University of Michigan study found a correlation between the Flint water crisis and a decrease in academic performance for school-age children.

In April 2014, the city of Flint switched its drinking water supply from Detroit’s system to the Flint River to save money. However, later studies revealed elevated levels of lead in the blood of the city’s residents. The city switched its water source to Lake Huron in 2015, but the damage had already been done—approximately 99,000 residents had already been exposed to lead poisoning. Former Governor Rick Snyder and eight former state officials faced criminal charges for the Flint water crisis in 2021. 

Samuel Owusu, a research analyst at the Educational Policy Initiative, said one of the defining aspects of the study was its use of non-educational data—data not relating to academic, educator, demographic and student information—to show the effect the Flint water crisis had on student performance.

New map of ancient trees an opportunity for conservation

Read the full story from the BBC.

A new map shows there could be around two million trees with exceptional environmental and cultural value previously unrecorded in England.