Decarbonizing electricity production in the US by 2035 less costly than expected

The Mohave Power Station was a 1580 megawatt electric coal-fired power plant located in Laughlin, Nevada. It was shut down in 2005. (Image by Kjkolb, Wikimedia Commons).

Meeting the 2035 deadline for decarbonizing electricity production in the United States – as proposed by the incoming Biden administration – would eliminate just 15% of the capacity-years left in plants powered by fossil fuels. 

This, according to a generator-level model published in the journal Science which suggests that most fossil fuel power plants could complete normal lifespans and still close by 2035 because so many facilities are nearing the end of their operational lives.

The article states that plant retirements are already underway, with 126 gigawatts of fossil generator capacity taken out of production between 2009 and 2018, including 33 gigawatts in 2017 and 2018 alone.

Most fossil fuel power plants could complete normal lifespans and still close by 2035 because so many facilities are nearing the end of their operational lives

“Creating an electricity system that does not contribute to climate change is actually two processes — building carbon-free infrastructure like solar plants, and closing carbon-based infrastructure like coal plants,” Emily Grubert, author of the Policy Forum piece and a researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology, said in a media statement. “My work shows that because a lot of US fossil fuel plants are already pretty old, the target of decarbonization by 2035 would not require us to shut most of these plants down earlier than their typical lifespans.”

Grubert’s analyses have determined that of the US fossil fuel-fired generation capacity, 73% (630 out of 840 gigawatts) will reach the end of its typical lifespan by 2035; that percentage would reach 96% by 2050, and about 13% of US fossil fuel-fired generation capacity (110 gigawatts) operating in 2018 had already exceeded its typical lifespan. 

The researcher also explained that because typical lifespans are averages, some generators operate for longer than expected. Thus, she noted that allowing facilities to run until they retire is likely insufficient for a 2035 decarbonization deadline.

In her view, closure deadlines that strand assets relative to reasonable lifespan expectations could create financial liability for debts and other costs. In fact, her research found that a 2035 deadline for completely retiring fossil fuel-based electricity generators would only strand about 15% (1,700 gigawatt-years) of capacity life, along with about 20% (380,000 job-years) of direct power plant and fuel extraction jobs that existed in 2018.

“Closing large industrial facilities like power plants can be really disruptive for the people who work there and live in the surrounding communities,” Grubert said. “We don’t want to repeat the damage we saw with the collapse of the steel industry in the 1970s and ’80s, where people lost jobs, pensions, and stability without warning. We already know where the plants are, and who might be affected. Using the 2035 decarbonization deadline to guide explicit, community-grounded planning for what to do next can help, even without a lot of financial support.”

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