File this one under W for With Friends Like These, Who Needs Enemies? President* Trump front-loaded his 2016 campaign with a pledge to revive the US coal industry, but during his tenure the growth prospects for coal power have flatlined. The latest outlook on electricity generation from Trump’s own Department of Energy serves up the bad news for coal with a side of good news about renewable energy and some so-so news for natural gas, too.
All The Good News About Renewable Energy, Especially Wind Power
The new update comes from the Energy Information Administration. The office was established in 1974 as part of the federal response to the oil crisis. EIA comes under the Department of Energy umbrella, though its Congressional mandate provides it with a semi-independent mandate to produce policy-neutral data, analysis, and forecasts.
That emphasis on neutrality certainly comes into play in the new EIA electricity generation update. It came out last Thursday, January 10 under the headline, “New electric generating capacity in 2019 will come from renewables and natural gas.”
Coal stakeholders might want to stop reading right there, or at least keep a box of Kleenex handy. For that matter, storm clouds are on the horizon for natural gas, too.
For 2019, EIA totals up 10.9 gigawatts in new wind capacity and 4.3 gigawatts of utility scale solar. Under a separate report, the office also notes that another 3.9 gigawatts of small-scale solar capacity are on the way this year. It’s also worth noting here that the Department of Energy still has high hopes for small scale, distributed wind power.
Even without considering small scale wind or solar power, the 2019 renewable energy outlook is double the expected additions from natural gas. Utility scale wind and solar came in at 15.2 gigawatts together for 2019, leaving natural gas far behind at just 7.5 gigawatts (most of that new gas capacity will be from the new generation of high efficiency combined-cycle plants).
What about coal?
Oh right, coal. What about it? EIA tracked zero — yes, zero — new coal power plant capacity additions scheduled for 2019.
That’s no surprise, considering the market conditions working against new coal power plants. A look back at the nation’s once-mighty whale oil industry is instructive in that regard.
Meanwhile, EIA taps a number of coal power plants for retirement in 2019, mainly at the end of the year.
One especially significant coal power plant retirement planned for this year is the 1970s-era Navajo Generating Station in Arizona. Efforts to keep that power plant afloat have fallen flat. Its 2.4 gigawatts of capacity will account for almost half of the 4.5 gigawatts in total coal retirements expected in 2019.
As EIA notes, that 4.5 gigawatts actually looks not-so-bad compared to 2018, which saw 13.7 gigawatts retired.
It is possible that the worst of the coal power plant retirements is over. EIA currently expects power-sector coal demand to remain flat all the way through to 2050.
Or not, as the case may be. Last November the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis ran the numbers, and those numbers indicate a continued drop in demand:
Another 23.1 GW of coal plant retirements have already been announced or received regulatory approval for 2019 to 2024, marking 71.9 GW of coal retired or scheduled to be retired between 2014 and 2024.
The analysis shows about 245.6 GW of current operating coal plant capacity in the U.S. and does not include more recent retirement announcements from Entergy Corp. and a city-owned coal plant in Michigan.
The IEA long term outlook may also be a bit on the rosy side, considering the growing number of US cities and businesses that are aggressively pursuing 100% renewable energy goals.
It’s not just coal
Coal is not the only victim of the renewables-fueled power sector transformation.
Last year, EIA noted that “almost all” power plant retirements in the preceding 10 years were fossil fuel plants. This year is shaping up to continue the trend:
Scheduled capacity retirements for 2019 primarily consist of coal (53%), natural gas (27%), and nuclear (18%), with a single hydroelectric plant in the state of Washington and other smaller renewable and petroleum capacity accounting for the remaining 2%.
Ouch! For 2019, EIA is tracking 2.2 gigawatts in natural gas retirements, mainly steam turbine plants that first began operating in the 1950s and 1960s.
That brings us to the defining thread in all this. Energy infrastructure is just like any other infrastructure. It gets old. Depending on the facility, at a certain point repairs and upgrades are simply not sufficient to keep up with other changes in the world.
Think of a coal power plant like a bridge that was built to handle 1950s-era traffic. It may still be structurally sound, but it can’t handle the volume and size of vehicles on the road today.
The nation’s fleet of centralized power plants has always existed on borrowed time. Fossil fuels and nuclear energy were the only utility scale options (aside from hydropower) as the 20th century drew to a close. Now renewable energy options are on the table — and they are increasingly more attractive as costs go down.
For a while there, cheap natural gas was the main force pushing coal off the power generation ledge, but low-cost renewable energy is beginning to threaten both coal and natural gas.
Renewables also provide investors and policy makers with a strong alternative to the high risks and high costs involved in nuclear energy.
US Energy Department Awakes The Renewable Energy Sleeping Giant
In the midst of all this, the Energy Department has been carrying on with something of a split personality. Energy Secretary Rick Perry regularly carries water for Trump’s pro-coal, anti-science policies, only to get smacked down by FERC (that’s the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission — check out some related news on that score from our friends over at Utility Dive).
On the other hand, Secretary Perry has also been vigorously championing his agency’s renewable energy mission, so go figure.
To cite just one example, last January DOE bucked the White House messaging to encourage global investment in the US wind industry. Coincidentally or not, investor interest in the offshore US wind sector has taken off like a rocket during the Trump administration, highlighted by a series of record-setting offshore wind lease auctions dominated by Royal Dutch Shell and other foreign investors.
DOE also launched a new innovation hub last year, aimed at accelerating wind energy development. The agency tapped New York State — you know, that little state with big offshore wind power ambitions — to lead the effort.
The US has other waterborne renewable energy resources waiting in the wings. Last week the Energy Department launched another round of R&D support for wave power and other ocean energy harvesting devices, and it capped off 2018 with a strong pitch for floating solar panel arrays onto reservoirs and other engineered interior water bodies.
In other words, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Maybe EIA was a little too conservative with its long term outlook for coal demand. CleanTechnica is reaching out to the office for some additional insights on that score, so stay tuned.
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Photo (cropped): Wind farm by Kevin Dooley via flickr.com, creative commons license.
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