Last week, the Sierra Club announced the latest U.S. coal plant to close: FirstEnergy’s Pleasants Power Station in West Virginia. It’s No. 268 in a long line of U.S. coal plants that have shut down since 2010, and among several to suspend operations this month.
The environmental organization lauded the closure as a victory in its Beyond Coal campaign and an affirmation that coal continues to lose when pitted against other fuel sources.
The latest Sustainable Energy in America Factbook from Bloomberg New Energy Finance and the Business Council for Sustainable Energy noted that the steady march of coal plant closures did slow somewhat in 2017, with just six plants closing compared to the previous year’s eight. But BNEF expects the closure trend to resume next year, with nearly as much plant capacity set to shut down 2018 as during the 2015 peak, when the coal industry dropped 15 gigawatts.
Overall, the downward slide for coal continues. In addition to the West Virginia plant, the Sierra Club this month announced the phase-out of Luminant Energy’s Big Brown plant in Texas and the drawdown of coal burning at Talen Energy’s Brunner Island plant in Pennsylvania. American Electric Power also unveiled plans to invest in over 8 gigawatts of solar and wind, as well as to reduce its power plant emissions 60 percent below 2000 levels by 2030.
“Our customers want us to partner with them to provide cleaner energy and new technologies, while continuing to provide reliable, affordable energy. Our investors want us to protect their investment in our company, deliver attractive returns and manage climate-related risk,” said Nick Akins, AEP’s CEO, in announcing the plan. “This long-term strategy allows us to do both.”
In November, Charles Patton, AEP's executive vice president of external affairs, said the future for coal plants “is very limited.”
“You evolve and you learn, and technology causes you to look at the world differently, and that’s what you have to do -- you can’t get stuck in the past or with the status quo,” he told Greentech Media. “We’ve learned that and we’re moving forward.”
That perspective puts Patton in the global majority. The United Kingdom announced in January that it would close all its remaining coal plants by 2025, with most already headed for shutdown. Germany followed suit this month. China is also working to wean itself off its cornerstone fuel.
The Trump administration, however, remains an outlier. Riding into office waving “Trump Digs Coal” signs, the president continues to argue that his administration is bringing back the jobs and prosperity that U.S. coal country has lost.
In his first State of the Union address, Trump declared that “we have ended the war on American energy, and we have ended the war on beautiful, clean coal.”
According to data from the Sierra Club and the Energy Information Administration, though, more coal capacity closed in the first 45 days of 2018 than in the first three years of the Obama administration.*
The organization, which has made it part of its mission to shutter coal plants, said it's on track to close the country’s 262 remaining plants over the next decade. So far, the Sierra Club says efforts to close coal plants have prevented over 7,000 premature deaths and stopped over 120,000 asthma attacks, largely in marginalized communities overburdened by pollution.
Blair Zimmerman, a former coal miner and current county commissioner in Greene County, Pennsylvania, where the 4 West Mine closed in January, said the Trump administration hasn’t made any measurable impacts in that rural area.
"There's not been any significant change in the industry since he's taken over,” he told CNN.
According to preliminary numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, since Trump took office, the coal industry has gained fewer than 1,000 jobs. Coal employment has taken a nosedive with the loss of nearly 40,000 jobs since 2012, after natural gas emerged as a cheaper and less carbon-polluting fuel compared to coal.
After the release of the BNEF Factbook, Rachel Luo, the senior analyst for U.S. utilities and market reform at BNEF, said, “For coal there’s more of a long-term story of displacement by cheaper natural gas and renewable energy.” The percentage of U.S. electricity generated from natural gas eclipsed coal in 2016.
The Sierra Club echoed that argument, warning that more closures loom.
“No matter what Trump says, coal simply cannot compete when grassroots activists, the public, and the market all prefer clean energy,” said Mary Anne Hitt, the Beyond Coal campaign's director, after the announcement that the Big Brown plant in Texas would close.
*Editor's note: In the original version of this story the Sierra Club reported that "more coal will have retired in the first 45 days of 2018 than in the first four years of the Obama presidency." In fact, more coal capacity was retired in the first 45 days of 2018 than in the first three years of the Obama administration. Greentech Media regrets this error.