Coal makes way for solar energy in United States

Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull

Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull

That's according to a new report from renewable energy analysis firm Energy Innovation, showing that about three-quarters of power produced by the nation's remaining coal plants is more expensive for American households than renewables including wind, solar, and hydro power.

Those trends are expected to continue, and the group predicts that by 2025, 86 percent of coal plants will be producing electricity that is more expensive than renewable energy. The EIA reported in January that around 50% of coal mines have closed down over the past decade.

In propping up the coal industry, the Trump administration is not only contributing to risky pollution, fossil fuel emissions, and the climate crisis, it is also now clinging to a far more expensive energy production model than renewable energy offers. Coal resources receive revenue through the capacity market, which now has rules that favor baseload generation and have "slowed the exit of uneconomic coal plants", according to Mike O'Boyle, one of the report's co-authors and an EI analyst. "The fact that coal can now be replaced with more alternative sources of energy only reveals that people can live without it". "You're better off building a new solar or wind farm, and that's what utilities and developers, even in Wisconsin, are starting to do", Nemet said. The report only examines the "local" area - defined as 35 miles from a given coal plant - to determine whether the plant has the potential to be replaced by cheaper renewables within that zone. Also note that Virginia has access to highly competitive offshore wind and utility-scale solar power resources that can replace that coal at a cheaper price AND without the climate-killing greenhouse gas emissions.

On a state-by-state basis, North Carolina had the most amount of coal capacity deemed substantially at risk in 2018, with 10,990 MW, followed by Florida with 9,954 MW and Georgia with 6,614 MW. In spite of that, the new analysis shows the low-case cost projections for solar and wind will outpace 86% of coal plants, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. By 2025, this number increases to 140 GW, even as federal tax credits for renewable energy phase out.

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The US is at a "cost crossover" in coal generation. However, the coal industry's incumbency is powerful and boosted by a more sympathetic Trump White House, pointing to a much slower decline in the USA when compared to the United Kingdom or Germany. US coal consumption also dropped to its lowest rate in almost 40 years in 2018. That swift decline has come hand in hand with the rise of wind and solar energy, both of which are widely considered far more economically appealing than coal.

The report notes that restricting replacement to local resources makes the analysis conservative, considering most coal, wind and solar travel from remote locations to load centers via transmission. Regional opportunities also abound.

PJM's November report on power plant fuel dependency shows the grid is secure today, although risks could arise in five to six years due to unplanned retirements and additional stress on the grid.

"The looming coal retirement wave and unavoidable decline of renewable energy prices means regulators must start planning for a massive turnover of USA power plants from coal to clean. O'Boyle noted that the findings could prompt 'policymakers and other stakeholders" to assess the benefits to their communities that a shift to renewables might entail. '[They] can look at that as they're considering new options'.

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