Is coal going the way of the dinosaurs?

Implosion of coal plant on Navajo land December 2020
Implosion and dis-mantling of the coal-powered Navajo Generating Station in December 2020. Photo credit: Adrian Herder/Tó Nizhóní Ání

In the midst of the most bitter election battle ever, you might not have noticed a really significant news item. On December 18, 2020, the stacks at the Navajo Generating Station (NGS) were imploded as part of the dis-mantling of what once was one of the largest coal power plants in the country.

Here are some more pictures. You can also easily find many videos online documenting this important event.

coal plant Navajo Generating Station implosion December 2020
The Navajo Power Station, which stopped generating power in November of 2019.  On December 18, 2020, the three large stacks were imploded as part of the process to dismantle the facility. Source: Arizona Republic

The NGS has a long and sordid history of environmental damage, but it also provided a very important source of money to the Navajo Nation and employed many native American workers. But there have always been significant environmental problems with the facility, similar to those faced by other coal power plants: massive air pollution, unchecked greenhouse gas emissions, large use of water resources, and massive land degradation for strip-mines and reclamation ponds. 

Now the Navajo Nation is looking to find a new way forward for their economy based on renewable energy. You can read some of their plans to move forward here:

So was the NGS an anomaly?  How are other coal plants doing? Well, in short, terrible.

The coal industry is in a rapid nosedive. This plot shows the rapid decline in coal power plants and their CO2  emissions (2020 data not yet finalized).

CO2 emissions from US coal power plants 2010-2019
Number and CO2 emissions from U.S. coal  power plants. Data from EPA’s Facility Level Information Greenhouse gases Tool (FLIGHT) (https://ghgdata.epa.gov/ghgp).

It’s interesting that the graph above covers the time from 2016-2019, when we had the most pro coal president in history.

Did Trump live up to his promise to revive the U.S. coal industry?

This is what Donald Trump said on the campaign trail at a rally in Charleston, West Virginia, on May 5, 2016:

“If I win, we’re going to bring those miners back to work – you’re going to be so proud of your president and your country. You’re going to be back to better than ever before and that means all kinds of energy.” 

The coal industry was a strong supporter of Trump. One of his strongest supporters was Bob Murray, President of Murray Energy, who labeled Trump’s election as a “wonderful victory.” But in October 2019, Murray Energy filed for bankruptcy.  

As much as Trump tried to give coal a free ride for its environmental destruction and undo regulations on the plants, he couldn’t slow the rapid decline in coal. The real reason for coal’s demise is economics. Renewables and natural gas are now much cheaper than coal. Of course,  natural gas still produces CO2 when burned and there are also significant leaks of methane, a very powerful greenhouse gas. And of course there are environmental consequences from fracking. But, let’s leave this aside for the moment and just focus on economics. Wikipedia has a nice summary discussion of this, including this line: “The consensus of recent major global studies of generation costs is that wind and solar power are the lowest-cost sources of electricity available today.

I copy key parts of their table here:

Solar- utilityWind onshoreGas CCGeo-thermalWind offshoreCoalNuclearGas peakerSolar- residential
29-4226-5444-7359-1018665-159129-198151-198150-227
Global cost of power generation (US$ per MWh).
Data is from Lazard, 2020, a financial advisor and asset management firm. For more information, see
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cost_of_electricity_by_source.

In an article on phys.org, a science news service, the Sierra Club reported 50 coal power plant closures while Trump was in office (https://phys.org/news/2019-05-coal-power-trump.html). But actually, 50 is a under-count.  Adding in 2020 closures, the number is at least 65 and another 40 or so plants are closing by 2025. See the following, for more information:

But that still leaves over 200 operating coal power plants. Most of these plants are pretty ancient, like more than 40 years old.

This is particularly important when it comes to economics, as these plants are not as efficient as modern plants and need upgrades, which are difficult to justify if the plants are barely making money. But still, these plants provide baseline load, so many are likely to be around for awhile.

So back to Trump … Did anyone really believe him when he said he would bring back coal? 

Here is an interesting article:

“Many of my coalminer friends voted for him,” said Sullivan, who has spent 54 years as a coalminer and, more latterly, consultant to a struggling industry. “They were deceived. Trump had no plan, no concept of how to resurrect the coal industry. My friends were lied to.”

The Guardian, ” ‘My friends were lied to’: will coalminers stand by Trump as jobs disappear?”

Anyone with some common sense could have known that Trump had no plan to bring back the coal industry. In fact, he couldn’t without repealing the laws of physics and economics. What’s really tragic is that these communities that have been so heavily reliant on coal jobs have not gotten the support to move on to more relevant, prosperous, and healthy jobs.  Lets face it, coal is dead. What is needed is a massive investment in coal country to help revive these communities after a devastating reliance on a single, 19-century industry. 

My point here is not so much to rake Trump over the coals (haha!), thankfully, he is gone now, but to ask Americans to think more critically. If someone is selling snake oil as a cure for what ails you (Covid-19, maybe?), you would be wise to get a second opinion.