That figure of at-risk coal plants in the United States rises to 86% by 2025 as solar and wind costs continue to plunge.
The research demonstrates how it’s increasingly more expensive to operate existing coal plants than build clean energy alternatives.
“US coal plants are in more danger than ever before,” Mike O’Boyle, director of electricity policy at Energy Innovation, told CNN Business. “Nearly three-quarters of US coal plants are already ‘zombie coal,’ or the walking dead.”
That’s despite President Donald Trump’s promise to revive the beleaguered coal industry. Trump declared the end of the “war on coal” and slashed regulations that clamped down on the emissions from coal-fired power plants.
“Trump administration efforts to cut environmental regulations are too little, too late to save coal,” O’Boyle said.
Rust Belt coal plants under siege
The Energy Innovation report found that in 2018, 211 gigawatts of existing US coal capacity — or 74% of America’s fleet — was at risk from local wind or solar that could more cheaply churn out just as much electricity.
North Carolina, Florida, Georgia and Texas are the US states that have the greatest amount of coal plants at risk from local solar and wind, the analysis found. Energy Innovation defined local as within 35 miles.
By 2025, Midwestern states including Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin are expected to have high amounts of coal capacity under pressure from renewable energy.
Of course, just because it may be economically feasible to shut down a coal plant and replace it with wind or solar, doesn’t mean it will happen right away. State regulators must sign off on such decisions. And many power plants will decide to pass the extra costs on to customers.
Moreover, coal is still a major employer in parts of Appalachia, making any shutdown potentially damaging to the local economy.
Coal has been dethroned
Coal was the longtime king of the power industry before it encountered fierce competition last decade from natural gas. Not only is natural gas a cleaner burning fossil fuel, but it’s in abundance in the United States thanks to the shale revolution. In 2016, natural gas surpassed coal for the first time as America’s leading power source.
Meanwhile, the share of total power generation from coal-fired power plants plunged from 48% in 2008 to just 28% last year, according to government statistics.
And the rise of renewables means that the economics have once again swung against coal. Aided by a surge of investment in clean energy, solar prices have plummeted 90% since 2009 — and they’re projected to continue declining, according to Energy Innovation.
Utility-scale solar power is expected to increase by 10% in 2019 alone, while wind power is expected to vault ahead of hydropower for the first time, the EIA said.
“Coal’s biggest threat is now economics, not regulations,” O’Boyle said.
New Mexico pledges to go carbon free
Another challenge for coal: American households and businesses are increasingly clamoring for clean energy as they worry about climate change.
Households and businesses are installing their own solar panels. Small-scape solar generating capacity is expected to grow by 44% over the next two years, according to the EIA.
Pressured by voters, US states are adopting ambitious clean energy targets — and they’re framing them as job creators.
Future generations “will benefit from both a cleaner environment and a more robust energy economy with exciting career and job opportunities,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement.
California and Hawaii also recently passed 100% clean energy targets.
Some power companies are moving rapidly to adjust to this new environment.
All signs point to more and more power companies waking up to the new clean energy reality.