Nearly all of the coal plants operating in the U.S. are now more expensive to keep online than it would be to build entirely new renewable energy facilities in their stead, according to a new analysis by Energy Innovation, an energy and policy firm. The analysis found that 99% of U.S. coal plants supply energy that would be cheaper if those plants were shut down and replaced with wind farms or solar fields.
“Coal is unequivocally more expensive than wind and solar resources, it’s just no longer cost competitive with renewables,” Michelle Solomon, a policy analyst at Energy Innovation, told the Guardian. “This report certainly challenges the narrative that coal is here to stay.”
In 2020, the country reached a point that the report refers to as the “cost crossover,” when renewables overtook coal on the U.S. grid. Energy Innovation has been running analyses since that year, looking at the cost of these coal plants compared to new renewable energy. The 2020 analysis found that 62% of the coal fleet was pricier to run than it would be to replace it with renewables; in 2021, that number had risen to 71%.
There’s a big new factor at play in this year’s analysis: the Inflation Reduction Act, which both provides significant tax credits for building new renewables as well as loan guarantees to replace fossil fuel infrastructure. Thanks in part to these incentives, the Energy Innovation analysis found that, out of the 210 coal plants still operating in the country, only one—a plant in Wyoming—produces energy at a cost that is competitive compared to the price of either local wind, solar, or both. And a lot of these potential renewable plants would be a lot cheaper; new wind or solar facilities would be around 30% cheaper than some three-quarters of the existing coal plants.
Coal use in the U.S., the leading source of carbon emissions worldwide, peaked in 2007; since then, its use has been on a downward trajectory, falling some 55% in output as of 2021. While right-wing narratives have blamed climate concerns, especially the Obama administration’s policies, for dragging down coal, the explanation is actually much easier: free market competition from other energy sources. During the fracking boom of the 2010s, natural gas suddenly became a lot less expensive than coal, while simultaneously, the cost of renewables like wind and solar were plummeting. Even President Donald Trump, who entered office vowing to put miners back to work producing “beautiful clean coal”—and who gave the industry a lot of freebies and second chances while in office—wasn’t able to reverse the hand of the market.
“We can’t just snap our fingers and retire all coal plants but we need to accelerate the buildout of wind and solar so that when the time comes we can wean ourselves off coal,” Solomon told the Guardian.