Trump’s coal revival plan won’t work; clean energy tech is already cheaper

The cost of solar power systems has dropped 30% this year alone

While President-elect Donald Trump hopes to revive the coal industry by slashing CO2-reducing regulations, industry analysts say clean energy has become so cheap it will continue to increase its domination of the energy industry.

Trump is likely to roll back several of the current administration's clean energy policies, such as the 30% Investment Tax Credit (ITC) for solar power deployments, the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan (CPP) and U.S. support for the 195-nation Paris Agreement.

Raj Prabhu, CEO of the Mercom Capital Group, a clean energy research firm, said that the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan (CPP) might be the first casualty.

That plan requires states to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from existing fossil generators to about 1,560 million metric tons in the 2030-40 decade, substantially below their 2005 and 2015 levels of 2,416 metric tons and 1,891 metric tons, respectively.

U.S. Coal Production EIA

If the CPP were eliminated, the U.S. would likely see fewer coal-fired plant retirements due to carbon emissions and less impetus for the procurement of utility-grade solar power. However, since the CPP's targets don't take effect until the start of the next decade, this is a longer term dampener for renewables, according to MJ Shiao, director of solar research GTM Research.

And, even with the dissolution of the CPP, the number of coal-fired generators is still expected to be reduced by about one-third through 2030, or by about 60 gigawatts of capacity, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

In recent years, U.S. coal production has steadily declined.

Last year, production dropped 10.3% year over year to its lowest levels since 1986, according to the EIA's annual coal report released last week.

Coal's share of total electricity generation, which was 50% in 2005 and 33% in 2015, is predicted to fall to 21% in 2030 and to 18% in 2040, according to the EIA.

Today, gas-fired power plants produce about 33% of U.S. power, nuclear plants produce about 20% and hydroelectric generators (dams) create 6%. Other renewables, including biomass, wind, solar and geothermal source account for another 7%.

And wind and solar are by far the fastest growing energy sectors.

renewable energy vs. coal EIA

Last year, new installations of solar power capacity surpassed both wind and coal for the second year in a row, accounting for 32% of all new electrical capacity, according to a new report from GTM Research.

By comparison, in 2015, the productivity capacity of U.S. coal mines decreased for the fourth year in a row to 1,165 million tons, a decline of 6.3% from the 2014 levels.

The average number of employees at U.S. coal mines decreased 12% to 65,971 employees, the lowest on record since EIA began collecting data in 1978.

There is a concern, analysts said, about the possible roll back of the 30% Investment Tax Credit (ITC) for solar, which was passed in a bipartisan agreement and extended through 2019. After that, it will decline to 10% by 2022 in return for lifting of the oil export ban.

"It could happen, but [is] unlikely, due to the bipartisan nature of how the extension was passed in Congress and the momentum solar has right now," Prabhu said. "Solar has gone mainstream with utilities, businesses, and home owners, not to mention that solar jobs exceed over 200,000."

Last year alone, the solar industry added 31,000 new jobs, according to the Solar Jobs Census; that was 20 times the national average for job creation.

Coal mining jobs EIA

"Not only did solar create almost 2% of all new U.S. jobs last year, those hires were concentrated in the states where solar is booming primarily because of market-friendly policies," said Amit Ronen, director of the George Washington University's Solar Institute.

Trump has also threatened to pull U.S. support for the Paris Agreement, which last year saw voluntary pledges by 195 nations to lower CO2 emissions. But the impact of such a move would be negligible at best in helping the coal industry, analysts said.

"Even if he did all those things..., which would require legislative hurdles, the economics still favor gas more as an energy generation source," said Colleen Kennedy, an oil and energy analyst with at Lux Research. "The economics just don't work out in favor of coal."

Because renewable energy can be intermittent, meaning when the wind isn't blowing or the sun isn't shining no energy is produced, EIA analysts use a "levelized avoided cost of electricity" (LACE) along with levelized cost of electricity. It represents the per-kilowatt hour cost of building and operating a power generating plant over an assumed financial life and activity level.

renewable energy EIA

For example, technologies such as solar and wind don't use fuel to generate electricity and have a relatively small variable operating and management costs. So their Levelized Cost of Electricity (LCOE) is mostly determined by capital costs and financing costs, according to the EIA. LCOE values can also vary across regions because of differences in construction, fuel, and transmission costs as well as resources available for wind and solar.

Due to regulations, coal-fired power plants cannot be built without carbon capture and storage technologies, which removes about 30% of waste carbon dioxide. So Trump has proposed increasing the number of "clean coal" or carbon capture and storage (CCS)-enabled plants, which drive up the cost for constructing new plants or retrofitting existing ones, according to the EIA.

Using the EIA's LCOE figures, coal-fired power plants with CCS have an average cost of $65 to $139 per megawatt hour (MWh) of electricity produced, according to the EIA. That compares with natural gas-fired plants with a cost of $58.1 per MWh of electricity; nuclear power with a cost of $102.8; onshore wind with a cost of $64.5; solar with a cost of $84.7 and hydroelectric with a cost of $67.8.

Tyler Ogden, a solar analyst with Lux Research, projects 12 gigawatts (12 billion watts) of solar generating capacity in the U.S. by 2020.

Renewable energy costs EIA

Last year, the levelized cost (or cost per megawatt of utility-scale solar power) utilities was $60 to $70 per compared to $65-150 for coal (not including transportation and storage), Ogden said.

And, in the last few years, renewables -- especially wind and solar -- have gained substantial momentum with rising installations and rapidly falling costs, competing with fossil fuels directly, according to Prabhu.

Solar power system prices continue to decline and module prices have fallen by almost 30% this year alone.

"Contrary to election rhetoric, it's not regulation or renewable subsidies that are killing coal; it's actually natural gas, which is cheap and abundant. Electric utilities purchase generation sources based on economics not politics and it is difficult to see how utilities would suddenly start buying coal," Prabhu said.

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Lucas Mearian

Computerworld (US)
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