Energy Transition: Coal Loses but Renewables Warning
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Energy Transition: Coal Loses but Renewables Warning

A new report claims that, by 2025, almost 80% of the United States coal plants will be retired or more costly to run than solar or wind.

San Francisco-based Energy Innovation: Policy & Technology painted a bleak picture for the coal industry. It comes at the same time that warnings about raw material shortages have tempered a renewables boom.

Dying Embers of an Era?

Firstly, coal’s outlook is poor. “Out of the 235 plants in the U.S. coal fleet, 182 plants, or 80%, are uneconomic or already retiring,” the Energy Innovation: Policy & Technology report states.

The decline is astonishing. In 2019, the U.S. had 239 gigawatts (GW) of coal capacity online. Energy Innovation: Policy & Technology found that by 2020, 72% of that capacity, or 166 GW, was either uneconomic compared to local wind or solar options, or slated for retirement within five years.

Saving Emissions, Saving Lives

The changing face of the coal industry is seen in the 158 coal plant retirements since 2012, which was the last year a new coal plant was put in service. The closures came in response to poor financial performance and required adherence to public health regulations.

Americans’ health is already benefiting. The Clean Air Task Force estimates that in the year 2000, around 30,000 deaths a year were attributable nationwide to fine particle pollution. That figure dropped steadily to approximately 3,000 deaths a year in 2018.

Energy Innovation: Policy & Technology’s report also reviewed the option of wind or solar as an alternative energy source in areas where coal plants still operate. It concluded that there are “immense savings available across the country, with ample opportunities to reinvest regionally in replacement clean energy portfolios.”

Coal’s demise will undoubtedly help President Joe Biden’s pledge to cut the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030.

Not All Sunny Days and Fair Winds for Renewables

Renewables have been enjoying a boom both in popularity and expansion. In 2020, wind and solar grew at their fastest rate in two decades, up by 45%.

Global renewable electricity capacity now stands at 280 GW, eclipsing the total output of the United States’ coal capacity. As a result, the energy market is at a historic crossroads. The International Energy Agency (IEA) expects another 270 GW of renewable energy capacity to be added in 2021, with a further 280 GW in 2022 as governments enact low-emission policies.

And so appears the first cloud on the renewables’ and green energy horizon: the vast resource pool requirements for such a task.

Scramble for Raw Materials

The manufacturing of crucial clean energy products like wind turbines and electric cars — and the upgrade of national electricity grids — could lead to a spike in demand for certain minerals.

The availability of copper, lithium, nickel, cobalt, and other rare earth elements may come under strain during this renewable revolution. Electricity network upgrades will need incredible quantities of aluminum and copper. Australia, Chile, and China are the biggest of a few global lithium producers. Almost all the world’s cobalt comes from Congo where the industry is plagued by poor working conditions and accusations of exploitative child labor.

Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the IEA, said: “This is what energy security looks like in the 21st century. Left unaddressed, these potential vulnerabilities could make global progress towards a clean energy future slower and more costly — and therefore hamper international efforts to tackle climate change.”

Such news will only bolster support for industries like U.S. biofuels, which are appealing to President Biden to include them in the low-emissions plan. Rumors about tax credits for nuclear plants are circulating, too.

More Twists and Turns on Road to Net-Zero Emissions

Renewables are changing the face of electricity generation, but fossil fuels still dominate the global energy supply. Oil (33.1%), coal (27%), and gas (24.2%) were the leading primary energy suppliers in 2019.

Coal plants may soon start stoking their final furnaces in the United States. Still, there are many more emissions to come — including the polluting and human cost of renewable energy manufacturing processes — before we reach net-zero.

Opinion writer: Tom Shearman

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