Ten years ago, coal accounted for about 49% of the electricity generated annually in the U.S. This year, the EIA’s December Short Term Energy Outlook has it close to 30%, compared to 34% for natural gas and 5% for wind which both more than doubled their shares of total generation for the same period.
Almost 50 GW of coal-fired capacity has been retired since 2010 with virtually no new coal-fired capacity added or planned.
On average, the coal power plants retired were more than 50 years old while the average life of such plants is 40 years, according to the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners. That capacity, and by extension the main point of consumption for coal, is expendable for utilities and being replaced almost entirely by natural gas, wind, and solar power assets.
As Gerard Anderson, chairman and CEO of Detroit-based DTE Energy, in an interview with mlive.com said “All of those retirements are going to happen regardless of what Trump may or may not do with the Clean Power Plan [referring to the company’s plans to close another eight coal power plants in the years ahead]… I don’t know anybody in the country who would build another coal plant.”
Or as Robert Murray, CEO of Murray Energy Corp., the largest underground coal mining company in the U.S. has a similar opinion saying in an interview with POWER: “I’ve asked President-elect Trump to temper his comments about bringing coal miners back and bringing coal back. It will not happen. The destruction that has happened is permanent.”
Apparently, even if it played a part in moving utility companies away from coal, there are other forces at work besides government regulation. The most likely suspects are changing economics and customer preference for cleaner fuels.
Natural gas at least appears cleaner than coal when it comes to CO2 emissions, and natural gas prices are so low in some places that coal cannot even compete on a price basis. With the abundant supplies unlocked by fracking and horizontal drilling, that fact doesn’t look likely to change. As a result, energy generation from natural gas has rocketed upwards at coal’s expense.
Renewables are also chippng away at coal’s market share. Wind power generated more than 4.4% of the nation’s electricity in 2014 versus 2.3% in 2010 and 0.2% in 2000, and solar’s growth rate and future potential are staggeringly high. From essentially zero installed utility-scale generation capacity in 2008, operating capacity jumped to 14 GW by the end of 2015 and the latest Solar Market Insight report estimates that more than 10 GW of utility-scale generation will come online this year alone. The Solar Energy Industries Association projects that another 20 GW of capacity will come online by 2020.
And as far as jobs in energy, the solar and wind industries reportedly create more jobs than coal each.
At least according to the latest census by an entity affiliated with SEIA, there were more than 200,000 solar industry jobs at the end of 2015, 150,000 of which were in installation and manufacturing. In wind, the American Wind Energy Association credits the industry with some 88,000 jobs at the beginning of 2016, of which 21,000 were wind-related manufacturing jobs and 38,000 were project development and construction jobs.
Meanwhile, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the number of coal mining jobs at about 68,000.
On top of winning by sheer numbers, many of those wind jobs are located in Republican-led districts. Earlier this year, AWEA released data showing that 86% of all the wind generating capacity in the United States is located in congressional districts represented by Republicans.