42% of Global Coal Plants Are Losing Money

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New wind and solar will be cheaper than 96% of all existing coal by 2030.

Some folks might be wondering why US coal plants continue to close at record rates, even though there's a supposedly pro-coal regime in Washington.

But the fact is that the economics of coal have fundamentally shifted in recent years.

That's why Spanish coal miners are embracing plans to close their own mines, and why a utility is converting a coal plant into a solar-powered village.

We should expect many more such stories to come. At least if new analysis on the economics of coal from the non-profit group Carbon Tracker proves to be correct. Here's the gist:

42% of global coal capacity is already unprofitable because of high fuel costs; by 2040 that could reach 72% as existing carbon pricing and air pollution regulations drive up costs while the price of onshore wind and solar power continues to fall; any future regulation would make coal power still more unprofitable.

When I first read that quote, I was actually discouraged. If 28% of coal plants are still operating profitably in 2040, it's fair to say that the climate will be well and truly screwed. But my quick read missed the fact that this analysis applies only to current regulations and carbon pricing regimes.

If our lawmakers get their act together and price carbon at a rate that actually accounts for the true economic costs of coal, then it would be game over for this most harmful of fossil fuels. Still, it's encouraging to see the economic tide turning even before such needed legislative action. That's especially the case because such trends have a power to take on a momentum of their own and further drive future investment decisions. Matt Gray, head of power and utilities at Carbon Tracker and co-author of the report, puts it like this:

“The narrative is quickly changing from how much do we invest in new coal capacity to how do we shut down existing capacity in a way that minimises losses. This analysis provides a blueprint for policymakers, investors and civil society.”

If you're reading this and just happen to own a coal power plant or two (who doesn't?!), you can use Carbon Tracker's interactive coal portal to explore coal plant profitability by company, region or country.

And then you can make your investment decisions accordingly.