Shuttering fossil fuel power plants may cost less than expected

December 03, 2020

Decarbonizing U.S. electricity production will require both construction of renewable energy sources and retirement of power plants now operated by fossil fuels. A generator-level model described in the December 4 issue of the journal Science 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.

Meeting a 2035 deadline for decarbonizing U.S. electricity production, as proposed by the incoming U.S. presidential administration, would eliminate just 15% of the capacity-years left in plants powered by fossil fuels, says the article by Emily Grubert, a Georgia Institute of Technology researcher. 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.

"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," said Grubert, an assistant professor in Georgia Tech's School of Civil and Environmental Engineering. "My work shows that because a lot of U.S. 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."

Of U.S. 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, she says in the Policy Forum article. About 13% of U.S. fossil fuel-fired generation capacity (110 GW) operating in 2018 had already exceeded its typical lifespan.

Because typical lifespans are averages, some generators operate for longer than expected. Allowing facilities to run until they retire is thus likely insufficient for a 2035 decarbonization deadline, the article notes. Closure deadlines that strand assets relative to reasonable lifespan expectations, however, could create financial liability for debts and other costs. The research found that a 2035 deadline for completely retiring fossil-based electricity generators would only strand about 15% (1700 gigawatt-years) of fossil fuel-fired capacity life, along with about 20% (380,000 job-years) of direct power plant and fuel extraction jobs that existed in 2018.

In 2018, fossil fuel facilities operated in 1,248 of 3,141 counties, directly employing about 157,000 people at generators and fuel-extraction facilities. Plant closure deadlines can improve outcomes for workers and host communities by providing additional certainty, for example, by enabling specific advance planning for things like remediation, retraining for displaced workers, and revenue replacements.

"Closing large industrial facilities like power plants can be really disruptive for the people that 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 70s 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."

Planning ahead will also help avoid creating new capital investment where that may not be needed long-term. "We shouldn't build new fossil fuel power plants that would still be young in 2035, and we need to have explicit plans for closures both to ensure the system keeps working and to limit disruption for host communities," she said.

Underlying policies governing the retirement of fossil fuel-powered facilities is the concept of a "just transition" that ensures material well-being and distributional justice for individuals and communities affected by a transition from fossil to non-fossil electricity systems. Determining which assets are "stranded," or required to close earlier than expected absent policy, is vital for managing compensation for remaining debt and/or lost revenue, Grubert said in the article.
-end-
CITATION: Emily Grubert, "Fossil electricity retirement deadlines for a just transition," (Science, 2020).

Georgia Institute of Technology

Related Climate Change Articles from Brightsurf:

Are climate scientists being too cautious when linking extreme weather to climate change?
Climate science has focused on avoiding false alarms when linking extreme events to climate change.

Mysterious climate change
New research findings underline the crucial role that sea ice throughout the Southern Ocean played for atmospheric CO2 in times of rapid climate change in the past.

Mapping the path of climate change
Predicting a major transition, such as climate change, is extremely difficult, but the probabilistic framework developed by the authors is the first step in identifying the path between a shift in two environmental states.

Small change for climate change: Time to increase research funding to save the world
A new study shows that there is a huge disproportion in the level of funding for social science research into the greatest challenge in combating global warming -- how to get individuals and societies to overcome ingrained human habits to make the changes necessary to mitigate climate change.

Sub-national 'climate clubs' could offer key to combating climate change
'Climate clubs' offering membership for sub-national states, in addition to just countries, could speed up progress towards a globally harmonized climate change policy, which in turn offers a way to achieve stronger climate policies in all countries.

Review of Chinese atmospheric science research over the past 70 years: Climate and climate change
Over the past 70 years since the foundation of the People's Republic of China, Chinese scientists have made great contributions to various fields in the research of atmospheric sciences, which attracted worldwide attention.

A CERN for climate change
In a Perspective article appearing in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Tim Palmer (Oxford University), and Bjorn Stevens (Max Planck Society), critically reflect on the present state of Earth system modelling.

Fairy-wrens change breeding habits to cope with climate change
Warmer temperatures linked to climate change are having a big impact on the breeding habits of one of Australia's most recognisable bird species, according to researchers at The Australian National University (ANU).

Believing in climate change doesn't mean you are preparing for climate change, study finds
Notre Dame researchers found that although coastal homeowners may perceive a worsening of climate change-related hazards, these attitudes are largely unrelated to a homeowner's expectations of actual home damage.

Older forests resist change -- climate change, that is
Older forests in eastern North America are less vulnerable to climate change than younger forests, particularly for carbon storage, timber production, and biodiversity, new research finds.

Read More: Climate Change News and Climate Change Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.