There can be few more encouraging environmental success stories in recent years than the sudden collapse in King Coal as a major player on the global energy markets. While uncertainty still surrounds exactly what the US election results mean for coal in the near term here, it's hard to see a scenario where coal makes a long-term, viable comeback.
Just a few cases in point from articles I was reading over the weekend:
Finland announces plans to phase out coal by 2030
The Independent reports that Finnish parliament is set to discuss proposals to completely ban the use of coal for energy production by 2030 at the latest, as well as to make all energy production carbon neutral by 2050. True, coal use has been declining since 2011, and now makes up only 7% of the country's electricity mix. Still, coming on the heels of similar announcements from Canada, the UK and France, it does seem like the potential avenues for a coal industry revival are rapidly shrinking.
Of course, just because the rest of the world is breaking up with coal, that doesn't necessarily mean the US can't stick with the black stuff, right? I mean, we are a big country. We can keep our asthma rates high and our tuna polluted if we want to. Here too, however, there's good reason to doubt that a coal-friendly President can really move the needle on the eventual obsolescence of the industry—and that's because much of the energy sector has already made plans to move on. Michigan Live, for example, reports that Michigan's largest utility DTE Energy is still 100% committed to phasing out coal. Not only that, but the company's CEO Gerry Anderson says there's near universal acceptance in the power sector that coal ain't coming back—stating plainly that ""I don't know anybody in the country who would build another coal plant" regardless of what President Trump decides to do with the Clean Power Plan.
True, Anderson also notes that on pure economics alone, utilities would simply be replacing coal with (often fracked) natural gas, but the continued drop in costs of renewables and the general public support for clean energy are pushing utilities to up their ambitions regarding wind and solar too.
Meanwhile NRG—one of the largest providers of energy in the US—is even more bullish on the prospects for renewables. Vice president for sustainability, Bruno Sarda, told Triple Pundit in a phone interview after the election that the company remains committed to its ambitious decarbonization goals of a 50 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 and a 90 percent reduction by 2050, from a 2014 baseline.
Because NRG is technically an independent power provider, not a utility, Sarda says it's efforts are being driven in large part by customer demand to a greater degree than regulated utilities might be. It's worth noting, however, that even regulated utilities and the legislators that regulate them are subject to the astounding public popularity of clean energy. When North Carolina legislators tried to water down renewable energy requirements, for example, there was a huge public outcry, not to mention pushback from major corporate players like Apple, Facebook and Google, which ultimately derailed much of the anti-renewables rabble rousing.
But what about China?
There is one big question mark around the future of coal, and that's China. Analysts and activists alike have been astounded by how fast coal use has plateaued in China, years ahead of schedule—driven in part by domestic concerns over air quality, and in part by a slow down in the economy. The country's climate leadership may also step up further if the US cedes its position on the global stage. That said, China is still building a huge amount of new coal capacity. What's interesting, however, is how much of the world's attention on these additions is not on the pollution they will cause, but the fact that they may become rapidly obsolete. In fact, according to this report over at Fortune, the country may be throwing away as much as $500 billion on unnecessary power plants which will never recoup their value.
Taken as a whole, the future doesn't look much brighter for coal than it did a month ago. True, there may be a temporary slowdown in coal plant retirements if US policy does shift—but given the rise of renewables, the competition from natural gas, and the continued shift away from coal on the global level, I would not be pouring any investments into coal mining, processing, transportation or consumption any time soon. And when investment dries up on a mature, outdated technology, the prospects for future growth dry up too.