Coal power plants are in decline almost everywhere in the world outside of China, India, and other parts of Asia. Parts of Asia continue to grow their coal production, even while the US and Europe are reducing their coal consumption in line with the Paris Climate Accord and net zero targets.
The decline is very sharp in parts of Europe; with the United Kingdom currently using coal for only around 2% of the country’s electricity needs, and Germany with a coal phase-out date of 2030 all but set in stone.
Germany will aim for a 2030 coal phase-out date, with the caveat being that reliable sources of electricity must be in place in the country for that to happen.
In Germany, coal has steadily been replaced with natural gas and renewables, but mostly with renewable energy these days.
The same story is true in the United States.
Perhaps surprisingly, coal is being steadily phased-out in the United States, as well. While the US decline in coal use is far from the UK’s rapid phase-out (the UK plans to phase-out coal completely by 2025), it’s still significant.
The decline in the US of 100 gigawatts (GW) last decade, from over 300 GW of coal capacity at the beginning of the decade (from 318 GW in 2011), down to 218 GW by 2020, can be attributed mainly to coal-to-gas switching (lower-priced, cleaner-burning natural gas taking the place of coal).
There is also a steady decline in this decade (from 218 GW in 2020 to 184 GW in 2023); with announced coal plant closures bringing the total GW of projected US coal power plant capacity down to 159 GW by 2026 and to 116 GW by 2030.
The new reason for the steady decline in coal-fired capacity in the United States this decade? Less expensive, and much cleaner, solar and wind energy, and battery storage for the new solar and wind energy capacity.
While Europe is leading the charge in terms of coal phase-outs, the US is making steady progress. If public and/ or private entities in the US were to buy out coal plants, just to have them retired, that would be helpful.
Without such intervention, the United States could see over 50 GW of coal power plants sticking around until 2040 or even beyond that.
Meanwhile, coal phase-outs still aren’t happening fast enough globally –
“The world needs to phase out coal five times faster than it currently is to prevent “climate chaos”, according to a new report.
Around the world, more than 2,400 coal-fired plants are still up and running.
A new report by US NGO Global Energy Monitor says all of these must shut by 2040 and no new plants can open if countries want to meet their Paris Agreement climate goals.”
Coal Phase-Outs in Europe
Most European countries have ambitious coal phase-out targets (see chart below). The United Nations has advised that 2030 should be the phase-out date for coal-fired power plants in OECD countries to be on track to meet Paris climate targets.
Especially noteworthy, the United Kingdom’s coal consumption has gone down from providing about 40% of the country’s electricity needs in 2012 to just over 2%. The UK plans to complete its coal phase-out by 2025, at which time, there will be no coal plants operating in the country.
Here is a chart with coal phase-out dates for countries within the European Union [Note – this chart was made prior to Germany’s on-again, off-again plans of a 2030 date for the phase-out of coal-fired power plants]:
Poland is an example of a heavily coal-reliant nation that does not have an ambitious phase-out date. About 70% of the country’s electricity comes from coal-fired power plants, the most in the European Union.
Poland is not currently phasing out coal at all, however, the country aims to close all coal mines in the country by 2049.
The phase-out of coal-fired power plants in Europe, as noted with coal-phase outs in the United States, began primarily with coal-to-gas switching, and has evolved towards renewable energy as the primary driver, especially wind and solar energy.
Coal Phase-Outs in the United States
Although there continues to be no hard date for the phase-out of coal-fired power plants in the US, coal has been steadily phased-out nonethless in the country.
The reason behind coal phase-outs in the US has been due to: 1. less expensive, cleaner alternatives, first in natural gas and, more recently, it has been predominantly wind and solar replacing coal, and 2. regulations on pollution from coal plants that make it nearly impossible for coal plants to operate profitably while also investing in cleaning up their operations.
States like California have phased-out coal completely from the state’s energy mix. Even states like Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and South Dakota are phasing-out coal for less expensive, cleaner wind (and also, increasingly for solar, and in some states, like South Dakota, it’s cheap and clean hydroelectricity primarily driving the green switch).
The timeline of natural gas primarily replacing coal due to being less expensive, and cleaner, at first, and now increasingly wind (and solar) replacing coal, holds true throughout much of the United States.