Donald Trump, who grew up in a wealthy family in New York City and mocked coal miners in a 1990 interview, made a big deal about how great his presidency was going to be for coal. “Trump Digs Coal” signs were frequent at his rallies, he promised to bring jobs back to the suffering coal industry and he even appointed a coal lobbyist to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.
For all that, most people knew there wasn’t a whole lot Trump could do to save the coal industry. And now that he’s out of office, we officially have the numbers to show what happened to coal during his four years in office.
Specifically, I’m talking about the power plants that make up the vast majority of coal use in the U.S.
From January 2017 to January 2021, the U.S. lost 279 coal-fired electricity generation units (units, not plants), with a combined capacity of 52.5 gigawatts (net summer capacity). The overall fleet of power generators went from 24.8% coal to 19.3%. If the country kept losing coal capacity at the same rate as it did the last four years, it would have none left by mid-2037.
So no, Trump did not save coal. And if he did anything to slow the industry’s decline — which I personally don’t think is likely, given the reasons most experts believe coal is dying — then the implication is that the industry is in for some truly incredible shrinkage under the administration of Joe Biden.
Why did I choose to look at capacity, rather than the actual amount of energy we’re getting from coal, or the amount we’re pulling out of the ground each month? Because capacity is what actually drives our use of coal. If you get rid of the coal power plants, you eliminate the need for most coal use.
The death of coal power plants coincided with the rise of natural gas, solar and wind power. In fact, despite the fact that we lost 52.5 gigawatts of coal capacity in the last four years, our total power fleet grew by 38.4 gigawatts. During that time, we gained 37.7 GW of wind capacity, 35.7 GW of natural gas and 26.3 GW of solar.
(Note that these numbers don’t capture rooftop solar).
Everything else in the power fleet — primarily hydroelectric and nuclear plants — declined about 10 GW.
As many have pointed out, the main reason for the death of coal power is that it’s too damn expensive. Natural gas, solar and wind power are simply cheaper to produce power with, and the cost of wind and solar keep falling. Renewable resources, you see, have a fundamental cost advantage over all combustion-based power generation: They don’t require fuel.
Some of the coal power lost has actually been converted to natural gas. But most of it has been retired. And what’s more, coal plants have been retiring younger. If you take the list of power plants that have retired in the U.S. in recent years and average out how long they were operating for, you find that long-term the average lifespan of a coal-fired power generator is about 52 years.
In Trump’s four years in office, the average retiring coal generator was only 48 years old. That means that the remaining coal units operating in the U.S. — of which there are 604 — look like they’re headed out the door faster than they were before Trump’s presidency.
Of the remaining coal power, about half is located in the two largest Regional Transmission Organizations in the country: MISO, which covers most of the upper Midwest, and PJM, whose territory stretches from New Jersey to Illinois.
Both have been shedding coal, but in very different ways. Under Trump, MISO lost 8.8 GW of coal power, and its fleet went from 36.5% coal to 30.7%. The only other significant change was that it added 11.3 GW of wind power, and wind’s share went from 8.5% to 14.5%.
PJM’s transformation has been more dramatic. The RTO lost 15.5 GW of coal power under Trump, and the PJM fleet went from 32.8% coal to 23.4%. However, the big shift in PJM has been to another fossil fuel — gas. In the past four years, PJM added 21.4 GW of natural gas capacity, and gas’ share of the fleet rose from 35% to 44.1%.
Funny enough, Republicans have used the example of the last four years to argue against further environmental regulation, saying that the market has shown it will become more green even with an administration friendly to carbon-intensive power sources. But the Biden administration has sent many signals that it wants to get serious about fighting climate change again, and that means moving off coal.
I’m inclined to agree that we will continue to lose coal power plants no matter what happens — the train has already left the station on that one. But the pace matters, and so do the power sources we use to replace that coal.
That means many things. One is that the government needs to start thinking about the economic impact that the loss of coal will have on communities that rely on the industry — especially in West Virginia, Kentucky and Wyoming. Another consideration is that if we are more conscious about how we construct our infrastructure in the coming years we can build a far better power system than the one that exists today. Wind and solar tend to work well together because wind often produces more power at night, while solar only produces during the day. Both would benefit from batteries, which by the way grew rapidly from 550 MW of capacity nationwide to 1.6 GW under Trump. They would also benefit from High Voltage Direct Current transmission lines, which could help carry power over long distances and therefore smooth out shifts in generation.
And we all need to remember: Big power plants are built with massive financial investments, and the people who put up those investments expect the plants to operate for decades upon decades. If we hope to preserve the Earth as a habitable place for humans, we will need to reckon with natural gas at some point.