Solar and wind power got much cheaper than coal. Why aren’t we using it more?

Another heap of dirt was thrown on the coal industry’s casket this week after a new report claimed that 99% of the country’s coal plants are now more expensive to run compared to replacing them with wind and solar.

The report by the San Francisco think tank, Energy Innovation Policy and Technology, noted that as coal costs increase, renewable energy continues to get cheaper.

“The cost of operating existing coal power plants in the United States continues to increase while coal jobs, generation, and mining all decrease,” noted the report. “New coal retirement announcements seem to happen faster, even as natural gas prices skyrocket, and renewable energy prices keep dropping.”

Last year’s Inflation Reduction Act, which promises to invest $370 billion into electric vehicles, clean energy infrastructure and climate resilience, has shifted the economic scales even further and may be the jolt required to unlock the country’s renewable energy potential. One of the reasons renewable energy hasn’t taken off in the way many thought it might is that battery storage is expensive and the technology is lagging. And when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow, there may not be enough power for everyone.

Coal currently costs about $36 per megawatt hour, while solar comes in at around $24 per megawatt hour, said the report. In addition, the report noted that replacing the coal plant with renewables would generate huge clean energy investment nationwide.

“Replacing coal plants with local wind and solar would also save enough to finance nearly 150 gigawatts of four-hour battery storage, over 60 percent of the coal fleet’s capacity, and generate $589 billion in new investment across the U.S.,” the report claimed.

The report noted that those falling renewable costs mean that only one of the 210 operational coal plants is more economically viable than building a cluster of solar panels or wind turbines and connecting them to the electrical grid. The Dry Fork power plant in Wyoming is the only exception.

America’s dirtiest energy source has been in decline for nearly two decades, despite a failed attempt by President Donald Trump to revive the ailing industry, once the backbone of the U.S. energy supply. The rise of cheaper natural gas in the late-2000s also helped in coal’s demise.

In 2007, coal represented almost 50% of U.S. energy use, while over 1 billion tons were mined each year – helping to power 186 million homes. Those figures have dropped to 20% and around 500 million tons, respectively. Despite the decline, coal is still responsible for 60% of emissions from the power sector, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Coal jobs have also halved from 80,000 a decade ago to 40,000 today.

Christopher Harress

Christopher Harress |

Climate change reporter on the east and Gulf coasts.

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