Coal Cost Crossover 2.0
Coal is quickly losing the price war to renewables across the United States. Over the past decade, wind and solar power costs in the U.S. have plummeted, contributing to accelerated coal plant retirements and significant declines in overall coal generation. In 2019, Energy Innovation and Vibrant Clean Energy first evaluated the extent of this “coal cost crossover,” projecting that three-fourths of all coal plant capacity would be uneconomic in 2025. The most recent analysis finds this threshold was nearly met last year and 80 percent of U.S. coal plants are already uneconomic.
Scroll down to watch how many coal plants have retired each year since 2012 and how the remaining plants are producing less electricity. You can then zoom into the map and hover over bubbles to explore the economics of individual coal plants.
Due to coal’s poor financial performance and air quality regulations to protect public health, regulators and utilities have chosen to retire 158 existing plants since 2012 (the last year that a new coal plant was put in service). Even where plants are still operating, they tend to operate for less time annually. The green bubbles on the map above indicate existing coal power that could more cheaply be replaced with new wind or solar power. The size of the bubbles roughly represents annual coal generation. The gray bubbles on the map indicate where existing coal generation is still “economical” to operate in our analysis, which does not factor in external costs, such as public health and climate impacts.
Some U.S. coal plants have particularly outsized climate pollution impacts. This list of the most polluting power plants in the U.S. was created using the EPA’s eGRID dataset. These plants are largely located in states with weak renewable energy policies. Stronger policies at the state and federal levels can reduce the climate pollution from fossil fuel power plants and help ensure a stable climate.
In many locations across the U.S., both new wind and solar would be cheaper than running existing coal plants. This gives policymakers and utilities cost-effective options to build clean electricity portfolios. But since some regions of the U.S. are windier or sunnier, there are noticeable geographic strengths for different renewable resources along with a cost benefit for taking advantage of plentiful wind or sun resources.
Coal generation can be replaced with wind power at a cost savings in many locations across the U.S., and especially in the Great Plains and Midwest.
The cost analysis was performed at a local regional level using wind data from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) Regional Energy Deployment System (ReEDS) model. NREL’s 356 ReEDs wind regions are characterized by wind resource quality and supply, enabling a calculation of the levelized cost of energy (LCOE) for wind in each region. LCOE is the all-in estimate of the cost of energy output taking into account the entire capital expenditure, operations, and maintenance costs. LCOE is a relatively simple look at the cost of renewables but is also a great first step in a resource cost comparison.
Coal generation can be replaced with solar power at a cost savings in many locations across the U.S., but especially in the Southeast and Southwest.
The cost analysis was performed at a local regional level using solar ReEDS regions to calculate solar LCOE. Similar to the wind ReEDS regions, solar ReEDS regions are geographic regions within which NREL characterizes the solar resource quality and supply. There are fewer solar ReEDS regions (134) than wind ReEDS regions (356) because solar irradiance, or power per unit of area received by the sun, does not vary as widely by location.
Because of significant coal plant retirements and reductions in coal power generation, coal power plants are causing fewer premature deaths in the U.S. However, coal power plants still cause about 3,000 premature deaths every year in the U.S. and are responsible for a host of negative health impacts including asthma and pre-term births. By switching from coal to clean, renewable power resources like wind and solar, we could continue to bring pollution-related deaths from the power sector down significantly.
We also used EPA eGRID data to look into pollutants outside of carbon dioxide, namely nitrogen oxides (NOx) and sulfur dioxide (SO2). These poisonous gases form when coal and other fossil fuels are burned at high temperatures. Both NOx and SO2 exposure can lead to respiratory distress and disease, and are particularly dangerous for vulnerable populations, including children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those with pre-existing conditions.
Because coal plants are more likely to be adjacent to low-income communities and communities of color, early retirement of coal plants not only makes financial sense, it is also vital for addressing environmental injustice.
Continuing running coal plants risks a safe climate future but more immediately risks the health and well-being of our communities while imposing a cost burden in most cases as well.