In a speech at the 2018 World Economic Forum held in Davos, Switzerland, French president Emmanuel Macron said he wanted to “make France a model in the fight against climate change” and promised to shut all coal-fired power plants by 2021—two years earlier than the timetable put forward by his predecessor.
While Macron’s move is mainly symbolic since France only generates about 2.2 percent of its power from coal, it signals his government is actively trying to wean itself off fossil fuels in sharp contrast to the current policy of his US counterpart. “We have finally ended the war on coal,” pretty much sums up American policy these days, as President Donald Trump declared in a recent speech.
Behind the headlines and clear policy contrasts, however, lies an important point: The US is likely to become coal plant free anyway, with or without presidential support. The reason is economics, which, as always, trumps the words of a politician—even if it can take longer.
The US and coal
In the US, the Energy Information Administration has been charged, since the energy crises of the 1970s, with providing an unbiased view of the types of energy used to power the US economy.
Its data show that in 2006 about 10 percent of all electric power plants—616 in total—ran on coal. By 2016, the latest year for which data are available, that figure dropped to just 4 percent, or 381 coal-fired power plants. That compares with 1,801 natural gas plants and 3,624 “other renewables” such as wind, up from 1,659 and 843 in 2006, respectively.
In other words, slightly more than 20 coal plants are shutting down each year on average. If the trend continues at the same rate, then most coal-fired power plants will be closed in the US within 18 years, or around 2035. A few will likely remain, since utilities close the oldest, least efficient plants first, but the trend is clear.
Not only is the number of plants dropping but the percentage of power generated from coal is also falling rapidly. In 2006, about half of US power plant output came from coal. The figure was just 29 percent in 2016.
The 2035 date is well past Macron’s aggressive timetable, but US use of coal is still declining quite quickly, considering how much of the fossil fuel it has and that the current administration is pushing policies that make burning coal more profitable.
Forces driving coal’s slow death
Coal-fired power plants are disappearing in the US for two reasons.
First, fracking has unleashed enormous quantities of natural gas. This has driven the price power plants pay for gas down dramatically. At the same time natural gas prices have been falling, coal prices have been rising.
This is making natural gas and other alternative energy sources more attractive. For example, the cost of solar and wind power has fallen steadily over the past decade, making those sources more competitive.
Second, it costs more to operate a coal-fired plant than one that runs on natural gas. Coal has to be crushed and washed, and the residue cleared from power plant boilers. These are steps that are not needed for natural gas and renewable energy.
Politicians can claim all they want that they are for or against coal in Davos’ forums, making grand promises about ending the use of the dirty fuel or declaring their plans to make it cheaper to use as a way to protect jobs.
No matter what they say in speeches, however, economic forces will inevitably dictate whether reality can match their words. And for now, the economics of the power generation business suggest coal’s days are numbered, and the world’s power generation will continue to shift to other sources.