Solar And Wind is Now Cheaper Than Coal, But Fossil Fuel Use Grows
The results found that 74 percent of existing national coal capacity “was at risk from local wind or solar that could provide the same amount of electricity more cheaply.”
According to a new study from Energy Innovation (EI), a renewables research and analysis firm, three-quarters of U.S. coal production is now more expensive than clean energy. The study’s authors found that by 2025 the cost disparity will be great enough for renewables to be more cost-effective than coal even with the additional expenses of building clean energy infrastructure like wind turbines and solar grids.
To compare the cost of coal energy and renewable energy EI paired with Vibrant Clean Energy to compile a data set of coal, wind and solar costs.
“For simplicity, the modeling compares each coal plant’s marginal cost of energy (MCOE) to the lowest levelized cost of energy (LCOE) for wind or solar resource localized around that coal plant. Restricting replacement to local resources makes this analysis conservative, considering most coal, wind, and solar all travel from more remote locations to load centers via transmission,” the study explained.
The results found that 74 percent of existing national coal capacity “was at risk from local wind or solar that could provide the same amount of electricity more cheaply. By 2025, at-risk coal increases to 246 GW – nearly the entire U.S. fleet.”
Despite Advancements, Gas and Coal Still on the Rise
But despite the technological advancements of clean energy, global fossil fuel use increased 2.3 percent in 2018, with gas and coal making up 70 percent of growth in the energy sector. While U.S. gas consumption increased 10 percent (the equal to all the UK’s use for a whole year), young coal plants in Asia are largely responsible for the spike in coal production, many of which have decades left before they reach the final years of their production life cycle. In the U.S., coal use has diminished but fracking and oil production have driven energy expansion.
The Trump Administration’s efforts to sustain the coal industry haven’t been able to prevent its decline, but they have slowed its removal in comparison to countries like Germany and the U.K. President Trump’s current EPA leader Andrew Wheeler is a former coal lobbyist, confirmed to the position after previous EPA head Scott Pruitt was forced to resign amid numerous ethics scandals.
Under Wheeler and Pruitt’s watch, the Environmental Protection Agency has diminished clean energy incentives and loosened regulations on the coal industry’s ability to contaminate water and soil, while the Interior Department (whose former head Ryan Zinke was also forced to resign from ethics violations) has sold off vast swathes of federal land to the fossil fuel industry.
Is Direct Air Capture the Answer?
With increasing global carbon emissions causing widespread concern, innovative solutions such as “direct air capture” have attracted the interest of venture capitalists and global resource companies. Direct air capture technology is focused on pulling carbon dioxide out of the air, a design model formerly considered improbable by many climate scientists.
But with the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report signaling some form of carbon removal necessary to keep warming to 1.5 Celsius, the scientific community has been spurred to include direct air capture as part of its overall strategy in addressing climate change.
The Finances of Global Warming
While the tens of millions recently invested in carbon-capturing technology are significant, they are dwarfed by the $1.9 trillion 33 global banks have invested in the fossil fuel industry since the 2015 Paris Agreement.
These investments in gas, oil, and coal are increasingly untenable not only due to ecological devastation, but in long term financial consequences. After blaming climate change for $24 billion in damage in Californian wildfires, the world’s biggest reinsurance firm warned that global warming-charged premium prices could force the cost of insurance to skyrocket and become unaffordable for much of the population.
Volatile weather has increased the relevance of climate change action for American voters, with a recent Yale-George Mason survey showing 81 percent of Americans supporting the general idea of the Green New Deal, including 57 percent of conservative Republicans.
Despite the Trump Administration’s domestic policies, renewables continue to grow, now making up about 17 percent of U.S. electric production. The advances in renewable energy, promising innovations in carbon capture technology, and public support for climate action could inspire governments and businesses to shift their attention to renewables and divest from the lingering grip of the fossil fuel industry.