A total of 16.9 gigawatts (GW) of US power generation was retired in 2018 according to figures published by S&P Global Market Intelligence including 11.8 GW worth of coal-fired power capacity, accounting for nearly 70% of all 2018 power retirements and solidifying the country’s trend away from coal.
However, S&P’s figures contrast with coal retirement figures published by other analyst figures which suggest US coal retirements in 2018 could have reached as high as 15.4 GW.
According to a snippet from S&P Global Market Intelligence’s article (otherwise hidden behind a paywall), coal-fired capacity retirements accounted for nearly 70% of total power capacity retired in 2018, while gas-fired resources accounted for another 22.4% of retirements, at 3,789 megawatts (MW).
Regarding coal-fired retirements specifically, the total of 11,800 MW retired in 2018 more than doubled the amount retired in 2017.
However, S&P’s figures seem to contradict those already published by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in October and Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) in November. Specifically, the IEEFA’s Seth Feaster published a report in late October which showed that 11 GW had already been closed in 2018 and that that figure would increase to 15.4 GW by the end of the year — made up of 44 coal-fired units at 22 plants in 14 states across the United States. Conversely, BNEF published a brief update in early November which showed that 16 GW would be retired in 2018.
“Discrepancies in data reporting are not uncommon in the electric utility industry,” explained Joe Daniel, a Senior Energy Analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, who spoke to me via email. “Factors at play could include things like the definition of a “coal plant” which is sometimes based on primary fuel that is used at the power plant but often times a power plant will be described as being a “coal plant” if it burns any coal at all.”
To make matters even more complicated, references to coal plants in terms of MW capacity “could refer to nameplate capacity or summer rated capacity. Oddly, sometimes the reported capacity of a power plant will vary based on the data source.”
“Another possibility is what constitutes a ‘retirement’,” Daniel continued. “If a power plant goes under indefinite mothball, is that a retirement? What about fuel switching. If coal-fired power plant switches to burning gas, it won’t show up as being “retired” because the power plant is still there, but it has retired as a coal-fired power plant.”
“A 4 GW difference may seem like a lot but that could be just a few coal plants that haven’t reported data yet or even that planned on retiring in December but ended up staying online for January. A power plant that decides to retire in January instead of December doesn’t suggest that there is a larger change in the industry trend. The facts remain true, coal-fired power plants are struggling financially. They are expensive, dirty, and inflexible, all of which make them unattractive assets to the grid.”
I got back in touch with Seth Feaster, author of the original report published by the IEEFA in October, and he has similarly been trying to track down the most accurate figures of US coal retirements in 2018. After several days of phone calls and contacts, Feaster and the IEEFA “have firm confirmation on the retirement or conversion to natural gas of 14,126 MW of coal-fired generation (at 35 units) in 2018 (989 MW of this is conversion of two units at the Muskogee plant in Oklahoma — conversions do not show up as retirements).”
“We have not gotten final confirmation on the retirement of 7 other units at three plants, but 6 of them are still listed by the EIA as scheduled to close by the end of 2018, and we have no reason to believe that they did not retire,” Feaster continued. “These are: Clay Boswell 1 and 2, owned by ALLETE; Sibley 2 and 3, and Montrose 2 and 3, all in Missouri and owned by Kansas City Power and Light, a division of Evergy. Sibley unit 1, 42 MW is not listed by EIA.
“There was also an addition to our list — the conversion to natural gas of two units at the R.D. Morrow plant in Lamar, Mississippi, that I believe has stopped burning coal to allow the conversion construction process to take place. Together, these 9 units total an additional 1,277 MW of capacity.
“IEEFA’s total for 2018, based on this information, is 15,403 MW of coal-fired retirements or conversions to natural gas,” Feaster concluded.
“Only two units, at the Yorktown plant in Virginia, failed to formally retire by the end of the year — but note that these units have been required by the grid operator PJM to remain in “Ready-To-Run” status for grid reliability purposes until certain transmission-line upgrades are finished in the region,” Feaster added. “Last I checked, the plant has run on only a few days over the past several months, and is currently scheduled to formally retire in March. These are not in the total above.”
S&P were not able or willing to respond to the above information despite repeated query.
Regardless of dueling retirement figures, the numbers show that coal’s decline in the United States is continuing and that consumption decreases are resulting in capacity retirements. Specifically, according to figures published by the United States’ own Energy Information Administration (EIA), US coal consumption in 2018 is expected to fall to its lowest level in 39 years of 691 million short tons (MMst).
This represents a 4% decline on 2017 levels, 437 MMst (44%) down on 2007, and the lowest level since 1979.
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