The last time U.S. coal consumption was this low, Jimmy Carter was president.
Despite campaigning on a pledge to save the dirtiest of fossil fuels, President Donald Trump has presided over a faster rate of coal plant retirements in his first two years than President Barack Obama saw in his entire first term.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reports that while 15 gigawatts of coal-fired plants were shut down in Obama’s first four years, Trump’s first two years have seen some 20 gigawatts retired (with more than two thirds of those occurring last year).
As a result, U.S. coal use dropped 4 percent in 2018 to a level not seen since 1979, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).
U.S. coal use. CREDIT: EIA.
In fact, the EIA now projects that the decline in coal consumption will speed up in 2019 — with power sector coal use forecast to drop a whopping 8 percent this year.
So what went wrong? After all, Trump had said he would end Obama’s supposed “war on coal.”
The answer is there never was any such war. The fundamental problem for coal was — and still is — economics, not politics. Indeed, as one leading industry analyst explained back in May, “the economics of coal have gotten worse” under Trump.
Coal power plants have simply become too expensive to operate compared to natural gas and renewable energy. Indeed, building and running new wind and solar farms is now cheaper than just running existing coal plants in many places.
Just last month, for instance, PacifiCorp, one of the biggest U.S. coal-burning utilities, reported that most of its 22 coal-fired plants are not economical.
The Trump administration itself is slowly waking up to this reality. Back in August, Trump traveled to West Virginia to tell supporters he had a “military plan” to save coal power plants. But by mid-October, Politico was reporting that “the White House has shelved the plan amid opposition from the president’s own advisers on the National Security Council and National Economic Council.”
Apparently they had no idea how to pay for the multi-billion dollar plan, and the most likely source of money was inevitably going to be U.S. ratepayers, especially in the red states that had the most uneconomic coal plants.
In terms of coal mining jobs, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports there were 51,000 when Trump took office, and 53,000 as of November 2018. Mining jobs have gone up slightly because the loss in domestic consumption was offset by a surge in coal production for export in the past two years.
But export growth may be threatened by Trump’s trade war with China — and seems unlikely to offset the EIA’s projected 8 percent decline in domestic use for power in 2019. So the outlook for coal jobs this year is not bright. To help, some companies, such as EnerBlu in Kentucky, are starting to train former coal workers to work in the renewable technology industry.
But coal also has another problem. While the administration is run by climate science deniers, including the president himself, the utility industry is increasingly reality-based.
“It seems that the utilities have embraced a carbonless future and proposed drastic emissions reductions,” coal industry expert Matt Preston told E&E News recently. Preston, who works for leading analytical firm Wood MacKenzie added, “That is a huge turnaround in thinking.”
In December, Xcel Energy became the first major U.S. utility committed to delivering 100 percent carbon-free power by 2050. It also promised an 80 percent reduction in carbon pollution (from 2005 levels) by 2030.
As Xcel’s chief executive, Ben Fowke, told reporters at the time, “This risk of climate change isn’t going away and we want to be the company that does something about it and hopefully inspire others to do something about it too.”
The bottom line is that U.S. coal power’s steady decline isn’t slowing down under Trump and, if anything, is speeding up.
This post has been updated.