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More coal capacity scheduled to retire in 2018 than each of past 2 years

U.S. power producers plan to take at least 11.4 GW of coal-fired power plant capacity offline in 2018, more than has been retired in a single year since 14.7 GW of coal capacity was retired in 2015.

About 19.8 GW of coal-fired power plant capacity is scheduled to go offline between 2018 and 2022, according to a new S&P Global Market Intelligence analysis. In the previous four years, retirements totaled 33.7 GW. The future retirement figures do not include coal plant retirements that have been announced, but for which a firm retirement date has not yet been set.

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Retirements in 2018 have included large power plants representing 5,639 MW of coal-fired operating capacity. Even though the total comes from relatively few coal units, it is already nearly as high as all the coal-fired power plant retirements in 2017, which totaled 6,424 MW of capacity. According to the analysis, 2018 announced retirements will be the highest since 2015, when 14.7 GW of coal-fired capacity came offline.

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Coal companies and their supporters have been trying to slow or pause coal retirements as the coal customer base slowly gravitates to other fuels. Michelle Bloodworth, COO of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, said in a recent interview there are coal plants that can compete but need to see changes in how they are valued on the grid.

"We think there's a lot more work to be done valuing the resiliency and reliability of the coal fleet," Bloodworth said. "We do think there are market-based mechanisms to do that."

Meanwhile, coal's opponents have welcomed and even cheered the retirements. A recent report from CoalSwarm, a network of researchers who worked with environmental groups to produce a global coal plant tracker, found that even globally, new coal plant capacity could be eclipsed by annual retirements by 2022.

"While the prospect of an end to coal power expansion is a welcome development for climate and health, it is arriving late in the game relative to the stark imperatives of what is needed," the report states. "In order to meet the goals of the 2015 Paris climate agreement, the current pace of progress must be accelerated, including canceling coal power projects under development and hastening retirement of aging coal fleets in Europe and the United States."

Among the 320 coal units retired between February 2013 and February 2016, the average age was about 54 years. Plants retiring in 2018 through 2022 will be an average of 49 years old at their scheduled retirement date.

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At around 4,363 MW, Vistra Energy Corp. is by far retiring more coal capacity than any other company in both 2018 and the period through 2022. On a Feb. 26 call with investors, executives explained that in today's market, the coal plants were simply uneconomic.

"It is our view that [Vistra's and others'] recent retirements indicate that market forces are working as designed in [the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, power system] as uneconomic assets have now exited the market, following a period of sustained low wholesale power prices," said Sara Graziano, Vistra's senior vice president of corporate development and strategy. "With the now tighter supply-demand dynamics in ERCOT, forward prices have improved, and the probability for future scarcity events have increased."

The company retiring the second-largest amount of coal-fired capacity, FirstEnergy Corp., has been a vocal supporter of recent moves by the Trump administration to try to give a financial boost to older coal plants. FirstEnergy has scheduled retirements for about 1,300 MW of coal capacity in 2019. If states do not step into administrative markets and provide support, FirstEnergy President and CEO Chuck Jones said on Feb. 21, there "will be no coal or nuclear plants left in these markets."

Duke Energy Corp., which is retiring the third-largest amount of coal-fired capacity, recently released a climate change report that envisions the company decreasing the level of coal generation in its portfolio from 34% to 0% by 2050. The company's report notes that investments made to retire older, less-efficient coal and oil plants while building out natural gas and renewable energy sources have diversified its portfolio while lowering carbon dioxide emissions.

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While the S&P Global Market Intelligence analysis shows Duke has set firm plans to shutter 1,164 MW of coal capacity by 2022, the company's climate report indicated the company plans to retire 2,006 MW of coal by 2024 while investing $11 billion in natural gas-fired, wind and solar capacity.

To see a list of coal units that retired from 2013 through February 2018, click here.

To see a list of planned coal unit retirements from 2018 through 2022, click here.

To see a list of coal unit fuel type or co-firing conversions, click here.