US coal power plants shut down at near-record rate, despite Trump's promise to save industry

If pace continues, America will cut more coal capacity during Trump's first term than Obama's second

Clark Mindock
New York
Monday 13 January 2020 23:30
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A fence closes off the closed coal-fired Somerset power plant in Somerset, Massachusetts, in 2017
A fence closes off the closed coal-fired Somerset power plant in Somerset, Massachusetts, in 2017

American coal-fired power plants were shut down at the second-fastest pace in history last year, despite Donald Trump’s frequent pledges to help the floundering industry out.

That’s according to a study by Reuters analysing statistics from the US Energy Information Administration, which found that power companies had converted or retired around 15,100 megawatts (MW) of coal-fired electricity generation in 2019, a drop that represents enough power for around 15 million homes.

It is the largest drop on record behind the 19,300 MW that was shut down in 2015, during Barack Obama’s presidency.

The decline marks a trend that has been seen for the past decade, as the energy source has been challenged by the production of cheap and cleaner natural gas.

Meanwhile, subsidised solar and wind energy have also cut into the market share of coal, which is a leading contributor of greenhouse gasses and global warming.

The trend has continued in spite of Mr Trump’s promises to bring “clean” coal back into vogue, and his denial that climate change poses the kind of generational threat that an overwhelming majority of scientists have said could devastate the planet over the next century.

Among those voters who Mr Trump has promised a resurgent coal industry are miners in West Virginia and Wyoming, which have been particularly hit by the surge in natural gas and renewable energies, as well as Obama-era environmental protections.

Despite his repeated promises both on the campaign trail and as president, an estimated 39,000 MW of coal-fired power plant capacity has been shuttered.

If that trend continues, more coal capacity will have been shut during Mr Trump’s first term in office (around 46,600 MW) than during Mr Obama’s second (43,100 MW).

The results underscore the importance that cutting coal power capacity in the US could have on climate change impacts, with 2019 US emissions dropping by 2.1 per cent as coal output dropped 18 per cent to its lowest level since 1975, according to an independent estimate by the research group Rhodium Group.

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