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According to the EIA, US states plan to continue their march away from coal in the coming years; as of November 2022, EIA data shows that 23% of the 200,568MW of coal-fired capacity currently operating is due to retire by the end of 2029.
The U.S. coal industry is in irreversible decline, with 2022 coal consumption expected to be lower than 2021 despite sky high gas prices for much of the year, as economics and clean air standards persistently drive coal’s decline. Economic competition from gas took coal's market share first, and now renewables will most likely outcompete coal going forward. Eighty percent of existing U.S. coal plants either cost more to continue operating compared to replacement by local wind or solar, or are slated to retire by 2025. Impending Environmental Protection Agency pollution standards for both new and existing plants will likely worsen coal’s financial outlook.
Early plant retirement creates financial uncertainty, as regulators and consumer advocates can argue that cost recovery is no longer justified. On the other hand, if utilities are allowed to continue earning their expected profits, customers may pay for idle coal plants for years to come—needlessly increasing the cost of a coal-to-clean transition.
When hydropower runs low in a drought, western states tend to ramp up power generation—and emissions—from fossil fuels. According to a new study from Stanford University, droughts caused about 10 percent of the average annual carbon dioxide emissions from power generation in California, Idaho, Oregon and Washington between 2001 and 2015.
"Water is used in electricity generation, both directly for hydropower and indirectly for cooling in thermoelectric power plants," said climate scientist Noah Diffenbaugh, the Kara J. Foundation professor in Stanford's School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth) and senior author of the study. "We find that in a number of western states where hydropower plays a key role in the clean energy portfolio, droughts cause an increase in emissions as natural gas or coal-fired power plants are brought online to pick up the slack when water for hydropower comes up short."
The study, published Dec. 21 in Environmental Research Letters, shows emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides—air pollutants that can irritate lungs and contribute to acid rain and smog—also increased in some states as a result of droughts. Some of the largest increases in sulfur dioxide took place in Colorado, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. The largest increases in nitrogen oxides occurred in California, Colorado, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.