By H. Harrison Coleman IV
As COVID-19 and politics have dominated headlines over the last few months, one news worthy development has fallen out of the limelight: the decline of the fossil fuels industry—specifically, of coal.
This lack of news coverage has been unfortunate for numerous reasons, as many revolutionary developments have been made in the field of energy. Coal—the dirtiest and most carbon-heavy of the fossil fuels––is experiencing a 40-year-low on energy production while renewable energy forms have hit an all-time high, and natural gas has continued its long march towards energy dominance.
2020 was a horrible year by many metrics, but champions of the environment and clean fuel advocates will be happy to know that it was also an extraordinarily dreadful year for the coal industry. In the United States alone, 36 coal-fired plants or subunits (parts of larger plants that burn specific types of coal) have been shut down, either as the culmination of a planned retirement, or financial struggles exacerbated by COVID-19. These plants and subunits together emitted 38.5 million tons of carbon dioxide yearly since 2010.
It seems that 2021 will be a little friendlier to coal than 2020 was. Currently, there are 12 plants and 3 subunits scheduled to be shut down this year in the US alone. It is common for subunits in a plant to close off before the larger plant does, as there can be as many as five subunits to a plant.
Additionally, Crist Station in Florida is converting from coal to natural gas, meaning that there are a total of 16 planned shutdowns or conversions in 2021. This number is likely to increase as the year marches on. These closures represent over 9.9 million tons of carbon dioxide that are emitted into the atmosphere every year. That number is smaller than in reality, as the subunits that are closing do not report their carbon emission numbers. Furthermore, many coal plants are considering the idea of permanently operating at reduced capacity, generating electricity only at times of high need for power, like during the winter.
This sequence of closures all around the nation follows a pattern that has been ongoing for a decade. From 2010 to 2019, a total of 289 coal plants in the United States have closed, while only one new plant was built in the same time period. As a result of this decline, coal power generation in the US fell by 40%. Already, seven states–California, Oregon, Idaho, New York, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island— are entirely devoid of any coal plants, with Connecticut and Hawaii to join that group this year and in 2022, respectively.
This rapid and rolling retreat of the coal industry in the United States has been a result of many factors. For one, natural gas has begun to outclass coal. Natural gas, which is much cleaner and less carbon-heavy, has long been the overshadowed little brother of the two fossil fuels. That began to change in the mid-2000s, when the fracking boom resulted in natural gas leapfrogging coal, and in 2020, surpassed oil in terms of energy produced. Today, natural gas accounts for 32% of US energy consumption, compared to coal and all renewables, which are roughly even at 11% each.
Additionally, renewable forms of energy have been growing at an astounding rate, with American green energy surpassing coal power for the first time in 2020. As more and more states move towards green energy, coal energy is all but assured to fall further. Many states have taken legislative action against the dirty energy source, with thirteen states requiring that 100% of the energy generated in their states be through clean, renewable sources by certain dates.
The new Biden administration looks to befriend the environment, as opposed to the hostility towards environmentalism and its goals that the Trump administration was characterized by. Biden’s plan involves moving the US power sector to being pollution-free by 2035, meaning that the ailing coal industry has no ally in the new president. President Biden’s administration is looking to fight the fossil fuels industry with a ban on drilling for oil on federal land, as well as other limits on the industries. Additionally, he has committed to a near-tripling of the amount of land the US conserves, with a goal of 30% of American land and ocean territory being protected.
This movement to reject coal in favor of other, greener forms of energy is not one limited to the United States. Several nations–and several US states–have pledged to become carbon neutral, meaning they intend to either offset their total carbon output or eliminate it altogether. Many nations, such as South Africa, the UK, and all members of the European Union at large, have pledged 2050 as their goal for achieving carbon neutrality.
One of the first ways that these nations are planning on doing this is eliminating coal. In the EU, 18% of power is generated by renewables, and only 15% by coal. Coal use is falling across the board in Europe, with the biggest user, Germany, planning to phase out coal entirely by 2038.
Some of the most noticeable changes are occurring on the other end of Eurasia. China has set a mandate to become carbon-neutral by 2060 and has established eliminating coal as a cornerstone for meeting that lofty goal. China, the world’s most populous nation and “the factory of the world,” has incredible energy needs. China is the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, with coal amounting to much of that. In 2020, China revealed its newest 5-year plan for its economy and internal development, and green energy was at the forefront: they showcased their plans to implement carbon taxes, engage in green finance, and drastically increase the amount of state money invested into green energies. Already, China is well on its way, as it is the world’s premier producer of wind power.
As coal limps towards an increasingly bleak future, it becomes ever clearer that the dirty industry’s best days are behind it. As natural gas and renewables continue to outclass it at every turn, coal’s days in the sun grow ever more distant. A future without coal—and fossil fuels entirely—is closer than one might think.