We Forecast Coal Under Billion

Public Utilities Fortnightly now forecasts that the U.S. grid’s coal plants will generate under a billion megawatt-hours this year. That would be big news in itself. But our forecast is that coal plant generation will fall further, below nine-tenths of a billion megawatt-hours.

Not since the late nineteen-seventies have coal plants produced so little power in the U.S. in a year. Which is extra remarkable because the U.S. grid’s overall production of power — from all generation sources — is now about twice what it was in the late nineteen-seventies.

The grid has radically changed in the four decades since coal plant production was at this low a level. In the late seventies, for example, the grid’s oil plants produced about as much as its natural gas plants and about as much as its hydroelectric plants. In today’s grid, in stark contrast, there is virtually no oil plant generation.

In the late seventies, the grid had no solar or wind farms, none. It had very little generation from geothermal. The grid’s solar, wind and geothermal produce over a tenth of a billion megawatt-hours annually and its solar and wind is growing rapidly. And while nuclear plants were beginning to be a factor, their total generation was a small fraction of where we are today, at over eight-tenths of a billion kilowatt-hours annually.

Indeed, in the next couple of years, we predict that the grid’s nuclear plants will out-produce its coal plants, for the first time in history.

At nine-tenths of a billion megawatt-hours, 2019 coal plant generation will be slightly less than half of what it was in 2008, just eleven years ago. And it will be a slightly more than half of what it was in 2010, just nine years ago. That’s why the grid’s carbon footprint is shrinking.