From Scott Carlberg

Coal still is a significant chunk of the U.S. electric power pie. That is changing at light-speed for the utility business. Several recent figures mark the decline of coal:

  • Fewer than ten percent of coal plants were built from the 1990s until now. (Source)
  • In April, 2019, coal produced about 20 percent of electricity. The all-time high was roughly 50 percent.
  • “American coal power generation in April 2019 fell 18 percent from the year-ago and 26 percent from April 2017.”
  • Coal-fired plants will likely generate their lowest annual output since the 1970’s, when the U.S. consumed 46 percent less power. (Source)
  • “April was the first time ever that nuclear power outproduced coal. It was also the first time ever that wind, solar, and hydropower combined to outproduce output from coal-fired facilities.” (Source 1) (Source 2)
  • “2018 coal consumption will be 437 [million short tons] (44 percent) lower than 2007 levels.” (Source)

Who is using coal – 1950 to 2018? Blue indicates power generation. (Source)

In the Carolinas, Santee Cooper generated just more than 45 percent of its power from coal in 2018.  Santee Cooper says, “This marks a dramatic change from just 10 years ago, when nearly 80 percent of the system generation came from coal.”

Duke Energy overall generated about 30 percent of its power by coal in 2018.

SCE&G’s last Integrated Resource Plan, submitted in 2018, said 39 percent of its generation was coal. (For reference, here’s a link to Dominion Energy’s Integrated Resources Plan from before the Scana merger.)

Coal had another blow this month: A snub from a big name. “Citing climate change, Chubb [Swiss insurance company] will no longer do business with companies that build or operate coal-fired plants or that generate more than 30 percent of their revenues from coal-related activities.” (Source)

This is the corporate equivalent of asking for a date and the other company says it has to stay home to wash its hair or vacuum the car. Ouch. When others avoid you, it is a sign.

Utilities publicize reduced coal generation. It is good to keep customers and stakeholders informed. Carbon-free energy is essential.

Threading the needle of future generation resources is complex. Example: “The smokestacks of the [Santee Cooper] coal-fired power plant reign over vast Lake Moultrie — by far the tallest thing in sight. … Company executives like to tout it as their flagship,” said a Post and Courier column in February. The article says the Santee Cooper board has put off an assessment of the plant until the Legislature decides on the utility’s future. In the meantime an analysis says the company spends more than $100 million above market to make power there.  Then, there are hard-working people at the plant. Dedicated people.

Trends and economics are not going coal’s way. It is more than politics, however. Can’t lean on politics as an excuse. These are financial, social and technology issues.

Utilities plan for decades-long time horizons for customers. That has been essential. Agility in planning and execution is picking up, however. More critical all the time. Companies that touted new coal plants in 2008 had to reverse course as the energy environment changed.

“Coal is clearly on the ropes,” it was said. How long can any utility lean on the ropes and take it?

Many utilities have made a “dash to gas” in a big way to get away from coal. Natural gas is a fossil fuel, like coal, with a carbon footprint, though much less than coal. Is it, however, the next target in a drive for a carbon-free power future? Maybe the solution will become the next debate. Check this.