What next for coal?
On November 9, 2016, many coal companies threw a party. As a candidate, Donald Trump repeatedly told cheering crowds he would “stop the war on coal,” bring back coal mining jobs and revitalize communities in the Midwest and Appalachia that depended on coal mines. Shares of mining and associated equipment and transport companies soared overnight. The late Chris Cline, once described as the “last coal tycoon,” was so pleased that he immediately contributed a million dollars to the inaugural celebration for Trump.
The party’s over.
Production of coal in the US in 2019 is forecast to be the lowest in 40 years, and has fallen 30% since 2010. Bankruptcies of previously celebrating companies are coming almost monthly. In May of this year, Cloud Peak Energy — one of the largest US coal miners, declared bankruptcy; its mines shipped 50 million tons of coal in 2018. In the recently concluded bankruptcy auction, lenders to Cloud Peak will get $16m in cash… for their over $300m in outstanding debts. In July, another large producer, Blackjewel, also filed. Large mines in the Powder River Basin and the Eastern US were closed. Two more large producers, Arch Coal and Peabody Energy, agreed in June to consolidate their seven mines as a strategy to remain in business. All of this 2019 activity comes on the heel of the October 2018 bankruptcy filing of Westmoreland Coal, the largest independent coal producer in the US: there being no bidders at auction, creditors holding $1.4 billion in claims have been left to try operate the company’s assets themselves to try and recover some cash.
The problem for the mines is the departure of customers, especially in the power industry. In the same US where Trump pledged to bring back coal, no one is investing either in coal-fired plants or coal mines. But plenty of these are closing, accounting for almost half of all coal-fired power plant closures worldwide. And as reported in September by Energy and Environment News, the size of the closed electricity plants is increasing (And Now the Really Big Coal Plants Begin to Close). Navajo Generating Station, which closed the first of three of its units in late September, will be one of the largest carbon emitters to ever close in American history. It will join the Bruce Mansfield plant in Pennsylvania and the Paradise plant in Kentucky as plants that have emitted over 100 million tons of carbon dioxide since 2010 and that will have shut down. Multi-state western utility PacifiCorp announced last week that it would close large power-fired plants in Montana, Colorado and Wyoming – in one case two decades ahead of schedule. In the Southeast US, the picture is the same as in the West: a report this week from IEEFA (Coal-Fired Generation in Freefall across Southeast US) notes a net decline of 48 since 2008 in the number of coal-fired generating plants in the region, with the share of coal generation dropping from 48% to 28% during that period.
The White House narrative on coal was, and continues to be, about regulation. But what happened to coal was not regulation – it was technology. First came the new technologies for drilling for natural gas (commonly lumped under “fracking,” but in practice a much broader set of technology breakthroughs, especially related to imaging of underground deposits), which increasingly made new coal-fired electricity generation uncompetitive with gas-fired electricity. Natural gas plants could also be turned on and off far faster than coal-fired electricity generators, meaning that gas rather than coal was in demand to act as “peak capacity,” when hourly demand from consumers would be above average and need to be closely matched by production. Then came the technology breakthroughs that drove down wind and solar generation costs, enabling electricity from new wind and solar plants to come in at costs less than half that from new coal plants. With new technology also sending energy storage costs plummeting, it will only get worse for coal.
Outside the US, the story for coal is similar: many country-level variants, especially in Asia, but the direction is the same. A report from Global Energy Monitor noted that the number of coal plants on which construction has begun each year has fallen by 84% since 2015, and 39% just in 2018, while the number of completed plants has dropped by more than half since 2015. Infrastructure Ideas’ series on the energy transition in Asia outlined how key policy choices under consideration may affect demand in many of the handful of countries where possible new coal generation is concentrated, namely India, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Pakistan. A study by Carbon Tracker estimated that nearly half of China’s existing coal power fleet is losing money, and that it will become more expensive to operate coal in China than to build new renewables by 2021. A report issued in March by Energy Innovation and Vibrant Clean Energy claimed that replacing 74% of US coal plants with wind and solar power would immediately reduce power costs, at times cutting the cost almost in half. According to the analysis, by 2025, over 85% of coal plants could be at risk of cheaper replacement by renewables. Carbon Tracker came up with similar in a November global analysis of 6,685 coal plants. This found that it is today cheaper to build new renewable generation than to run 35% of coal-fired plants worldwide. By 2030, that increases dramatically, with renewables beating out 96% of today’s existing and planned coal-fired generation. Exceptions remain only in markets with extremely low fuel costs, where coal is cheap and plentiful, or with uncertain policies for renewables, like Russia.
For coal-based power companies, there is no longer much of a future in planning and building new plants. Revenues are declining as a number of existing plants are retired as they reach end-of-life, as we keep seeing in the US. With prices of electricity from natural gas-fired plants remaining low, and prices from new wind and solar plants continuing to fall, more existing coal-fired plants are becoming economically uncompetitive, and either running at low capacity or also being closed, though their technical end-of-life may still be several years away. So the future looks increasingly unprofitable.
There may, however, be an unexpected silver lining. Coal-based power producers may well have another big potential revenue stream out there. Just not the one anyone has been foreseeing, or one that has been there before. That potential source of new revenue? Getting paid to take plants offline. Sound odd? Indeed. There are, however, two big building blocks towards this possible future.
1) There’s a lot of coal left to retire, even with fairly high current retirement levels. China has more than 1 million Megawatts, or 1,000 Gigawatts, of capacity operating or under construction, while the US has over 250 Gigawatts left and the EU has over 150 GWs. And key policy choices in some Asian countries may lead to yet more build-out for a time.
2) Political pressure for action is going to get very high. New data on the pace of climate change and GHG emissions levels is unidirectionally alarming. Every new review of climate change finds it to be proceeding faster than previously expected, and emissions levels remain well-above scenarios for lower levels of temperature rise. With every passing year, potential mitigation plans will become more and more aggressive, calling for faster and deeper cuts in emissions.
Faster and deeper cuts in global GHG emissions are highly unlikely to be achievable without early retirement of the large existing coal-fired fleet. And changing economics do not always translate rapidly into retirement of existing producers. Which makes it likely that at some point, in the not too distant future, closing existing plants faster than they would close on their own will become a top public policy priority. Closing existing plants might be done by political fiat, or, it could be done by paying coal-fired plants to go away. It may well prove that paying them could be a faster way to achieve closure, avoiding drawn-out litigation around contractual rights.
For coal executives, the best hope for offset continued revenue decreases may well be to hope for the creation of a publicly-funded “close coal plants now” funds. It does sound odd, but it may well be their best bet. And in the US, which political party is most likely to favor using increased public funding to achieve a policy objective? It’s not the current occupants of the White House.
Difficult to conceive, but it may come to be: coal executives for… Democrats?
Infrastructure Ideas will explore these plant retirement issues in its next two posts of this series: The Coming Decommissioning Wave, and Blue Coal?