The economic argument for keeping older coal power plants in operation seems clear enough: they’re already here. That’s it. That’s the case. If that seems like weak tea, it is. Coal is resting on a fragile veneer of bottom line respectability in the era of modern renewable energy technology, and a new report underscores how wind and solar could stomp all over existing coal power plants as the global economy shifts toward recovery from the COVID-19 crisis.
Renewable Energy & The Economic Case For Early Coal Retirement
The report comes under the self explanatory title, Renewable Power Generation Costs in 2019. Among the key findings is this nugget:
On average, new solar photovoltaic (PV) and onshore wind power cost less than keeping many existing coal plants in operation, and auction results show this trend accelerating – reinforcing the case to phase-out coal entirely.
“Next year, up to 1,200 gigawatts (GW) of existing coal capacity could cost more to operate than the cost of new utility-scale solar PV,” IRENA adds.
To emphasize: in many cases, utilities would save money over the long run by retiring coal power plants early in favor of renewable energy.
The Green Recovery, Great Depression Edition
That basic bottom line argument is already in force, as low cost natural gas has been the main force pushing coal power aside in the US since the shale boom erupted after the Bush administration.
The case for economic recovery based on renewable energy also has deep and game-changing roots in US energy history.
The proof is in the pudding. Here in the US it was renewable energy — in the form of hydropower dams — that helped the nation turn the economic corner during the Great Depression of the 1930s, a decade that spanned the construction of the Hoover, Bonneville, and Grand Coulee hydropower dams among many others, along with the birth of the Tennessee Valley Authority and the powerful rural electric cooperative network.
By the beginning of World War II, hundreds of hydropower dams were in action in the US, providing about 1/3 of the nation’s entire electricity output.
You might even say that renewable energy played a pivotal role in the victory of the anti-fascists over the fascists in World War II.
Just saying! Don’t just take our word for it. According to the US Bureau of Land Reclamation, US hydropower output soared during the war years. USBLR estimates that the hydropower dams under its purview increased their output by enough kilowatt hours to manufacture the equivalent of 69,000 airplanes, 5,000 ships, 5,000 tanks, 79,000 machine guns, 7 million aircraft bombs, and 31 million shells.
Of course, for COVID-19 recovery one might expect that low cost renewable energy would enable US factories to turn out more solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicles, energy efficient appliances, and other clean tech products. One might.
The Green COVID-19 Recovery
The globe is peppered with existing coal power plants that could be targeted for replacement, with the end goal of stabilizing or even lowering electricity costs for ratepayers, which in turn would have a ripple effect on other economic activity.
That dynamic is especially clear here in the US, where wind and solar could economically replace 75% of the nation’s coal fleet as of last year, according to one analysis. The figure jumps to 85% by 2025, which is just around the corner.
As for natural gas, well, what about it? The renewables-over-gas trend is gathering force, partly due to support from leading electricity buyers like General Motors, among many other major US businesses that favor renewable energy over fossil fuels — and are pushing for a green recovery.
Then there’s the side benefits of renewable energy as demonstrated by the agrivoltaics field, which somehow seems to be crossing paths with the suddenly-hot regenerative agriculture field, which has been adopted by the US solar leader Silicon Ranch (partly owned by Shell, btw).
We haven’t even gotten to the US offshore wind industry yet so stay tuned for more on that.
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Image (screenshot): via IRENA.
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