After having spent more than a billion taxpayer dollars, undermining environmental policies, and attempting to keep coal power plants operating, President Donald Trump has come no closer to fulfilling his 2016 campaign promise to the coal power industry than if he had done nothing.
In a recent survey, coal power production for electricity dropped by more than 30% nationwide in just the first six months of 2020. States across the US are shuttering their coal plants in favor of cheaper, cleaner wind and solar energy and to achieve the climate goals they have written into law. The portion of national power production from coal has dropped to just 25%, about half of what it was in 2010. It’s clear the rest of the nation’s coal power plants are headed in the same direction.
Just as the US is relying much less on coal for electric power production, the rest of the world is also striving to reduce reliance on coal for power production. But why did the world become so reliant on this pernicious fuel to begin with? And why has it taken so long for us to transition away from it?
Why burn coal and why has it been difficult to stop?
Coal is the most plentiful fossil fuel in the world. We’ve been using it since the onset of the industrial revolution to fuel trains, heat homes, and generate electricity. Mountains of scientific evidence confirm this reliance on coal has seriously harmed our environment and threatens the future of our planet. Facing this reality has been a contentious issue over the past few decades. Because coal is a cheap and plentiful fuel, and the reliability of coal power plants, we have been reluctant to part ways. Ignoring the obvious harm it is doing to our environment, however, won’t make it go away nor will it alleviate our responsibility to future generations to provide a breathable planet.
A primary reason for continuing to burn coal is simply because it is the incumbent fuel. Coal power plants are an established, reliable technology backed by powerful companies that have received government subsidies for years. Many countries are investing heavily in wind and solar due to the rapidly declining prices. Despite the existential threat of climate change, we are reluctantly still relying on coal to make up for the intermittency of these renewables.
How are we transitioning away from coal power production?
Global climate activism since the early 1990s has focused worldwide attention on the detrimental effects of climate change. This has put significant pressure on governments and corporations to reassess their energy and climate strategies. There is evidence for the shift away from fossil fuels both in the US and other coal rich regions. Asia consumes 75% of the world’s coal with over 120 gigawatts of new coal fired power plants under construction, the region also has around 400 gigawatts of wind and solar capacity slated to come online in the next five years. China, which burns the lion’s share of coal worldwide, has 97.8 gigawatts of coal power plants under construction but has also committed to net zero carbon emissions by 2060. Most nations are pledging to be carbon neutral by 2050.
More than 100 global financial institutions are ceasing to finance, or reducing their financing, for coal power production. More lenders are expected to follow suit, according to a report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. These institutions understand that the increasing frequency of extreme weather events is a long term threat to the global economy.
Where are we now?
Global coal-fired power production declined by 2.9 gigawatts in the first half of 2020 due to the pandemic and coal plant closures in the US and Europe. The pause in production due to the pandemic is an opportunity for nations to reassess their energy goals and choose a cost-optimal path away from reliance on coal. Presidential candidate Joe Biden has announced a new $2 trillion clean energy plan to simultaneously pull the US out of the economic decline due to COVID-19, create economic opportunities, and strengthen national infrastructure. Regardless of the US presidential race outcome, the momentum of the clean energy movement and energy efficiency initiatives will continue with the only difference being the pace.
Governments worldwide are setting policies and re-directing energy subsidies to take advantage of the falling cost of solar and wind energy. A recent report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) found that unsubsidized renewable energy is frequently the cheapest source of energy generation, and the cost to install and maintain these energy sources is continually moving downward.
Additionally, recent advances in energy storage have alleviates concern over the intermittency issues with renewables. The 80% decline in cost of lithium-ion batteries over the past 5 years has shifted the attention of power companies to storage technologies for their long term energy production plans. These technologies include not only battery storage, but also ice, pumped hydropower, heat, chilled water and electrochemical.
Much of the planet has a long way to go in realizing a truly sustainable energy future. However, the recent momentum by the US and similar previously coal addicted nations to shift away from fossil fuels in general has only increased. It’s the responsibility of the government and its citizens to have these conversations and understand the consequences of how they produce electrical energy and keep this momentum going. The US is on its way to a coal-free future. We need to continue discussing how to build our clean energy future in a reliable, clean fashion. After all, it’s a conversation we must have if we expect to live on a habitable planet and have people to populate it.