5% of US Coal Fleet Retired Last Year

CC BY 3.0. Wikimedia

Things are not looking up for Big Coal.

I already reported in November that 2018 was shaping up to be the second highest year for coal plant retirements on record. Now E&E; News has a update on those numbers, providing some rather bracing context for anyone in the coal or broader fossil fuel industries:

Power companies closed 14 gigawatts of coal capacity across 20 different plants in 2018—amounting to some 5% of the US coal fleet. And while coal exports were up, the long-term trend of falling consumption at home does not bode well for the prospects of coal, especially if similar trends pick up in US coal's main export markets. Here's how Matt Preston, an industry analyst, described the situation to E&E;:

"I think one of the major stories is there seems to be a watershed moment for utilities and their thinking about the future. It seems that the utilities have embraced a carbonless future and proposed drastic emissions reductions. That is a huge turnaround in thinking."

Given that we've seen even more dramatic falls in coal's fortunes in the UK, Spain and elsewhere—and given that these closures are persisting despite a pro-coal regime in DC—I would argue that whatever short-term silver linings coal companies see in exports may be fragile to say the least once decarbonization really gathers pace abroad.

Of course, a drop in coal capacity means little if emissions are rising elsewhere—as indeed they are for transportation. But once electrification of cars, buses, trucks, boats and bikes starts to really take off, the fall in coal capacity should start to pay double dividend in terms of overall emissions reductions.

We have eleven years to transform our economy. The continued fall in coal capacity is an essential step in getting us to where we need to be. Now it's time to pick up the pace.