Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Climate Change: Coal is doomed

If we are to avoid dangerous levels of anthropogenic climate change which will make the earth uninhabitable, we need to stop burning fossil fuels as quickly as possible. The good news is that advances in renewables mean that coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, is already uneconomic:

Around three-quarters of US coal production is now more expensive than solar and wind energy in providing electricity to American households, according to a new study.

“Even without major policy shift we will continue to see coal retire pretty rapidly,” said Mike O’Boyle, the co-author of the report for Energy Innovation, a renewables analysis firm. “Our analysis shows that we can move a lot faster to replace coal with wind and solar. The fact that so much coal could be retired right now shows we are off the pace.”

The study’s authors used public financial filings and data from the Energy Information Agency (EIA) to work out the cost of energy from coal plants compared with wind and solar options within a 35-mile radius. They found that 211 gigawatts of current US coal capacity, 74% of the coal fleet, is providing electricity that’s more expensive than wind or solar.

By 2025 the picture becomes even clearer, with nearly the entire US coal system out-competed on cost by wind and solar, even when factoring in the construction of new wind turbines and solar panels.

And that's in the US, which does not have a price on carbon. The picture is likely to be even better in countries with an effective carbon price.

But while simple economics should stop the construction of new coal plants, that's only part of the solution. There's also a huge train of legacy plants which are still burning. These aren't just destroying the planet - they're also making consumers pay more for electricity than they need to. And we do not have time to let them age out naturally. Which means that governments need to prioritise rapidly shutting down this old, dirty generation and replacing it with newer, cleaner, cheaper renewables.