Electricity Has Been in a Slump for 14 Years, But All Heck Has Broken Loose in How it’s Generated

Electricity Has Been in a Slump for 14 Years, But All Heck Has Broken Loose in How it’s Generated

Electricity generating capacity additions & retirements in 2021, and the long-term change in the power mix.

By Wolf Richter for WOLF STREET.

In 2021, developers and power plant owners plan to bring 39.7 gigawatts (GW) of new electricity generating capacity on line, and retire 9.1 GW in generating capacity, for a net increase in capacity of 30.6 GW, according to the EIA today. 70% of the capacity additions will be from wind and solar, 16% will be from natural gas, and 3% will be from a nuclear reactor. These are utility-scale power generators and exclude rooftop solar. Of the retirements, 86% will be coal and nuclear.

Electricity generation in the US has been a no-growth business since 2006, as efficiencies in electrical equipment (LED lights, appliances, air conditioning, etc.) and further offshoring of manufacturing have kept consumption roughly stable despite growth in the economy and population. But where all heck has broken loose is in how this power is being generated (data via the EIA).

Coal-fired power generation has collapsed by over 60% in 12 years, from around 169 GW hours per month on average in 2008 to 65 GW hours per month on average over the past 12 months, according to data from the EIA. It went from “King Coal” by a wide margin in 2008 (black line in the chart below) to #3, after surging natural gas-fired power generation (green line) blew by it in 2015 as the US has become the largest NG producer in world. And toward the end of 2020, coal fell even below nuclear power (brown line).

In a few years, wind and solar combined (red line) will blow by coal as well. With wind and solar, the big enticement for power generators is that the “fuel” is free and that there won’t be any “fuel” price increases in the future, no matter what inflation will do:

The decline of coal has long been lamented by railroads. In 2020, according to the Association of American Railroads, coal carloads plunged by 24.6% from 2019, to just 3.01 million carloads, the lowest annual total on record.

Power plant retirements in 2021.

Over the past five years since 2016, a total of 48 GW of coal-fired capacity was retired. In 2021, retirements will slow to 2.7 GW of coal-fired capacity, bringing the six-year total to over 50 GW. In 2020, the weighted average age of the retirements is over 51 years.

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Wolf Richter

In his cynical, tongue-in-cheek manner, he muses on WOLF STREET about economic, business, and financial issues, Wall Street shenanigans, complex entanglements, and other things, debacles, and opportunities that catch his eye in the US, Europe, Japan, and occasionally China. WOLF STREET is the successor to his first platform… TP-Title-7-small-200px …whose ghastly name he finally abandoned in July 2014. Here’s the story on that. Wolf lives in San Francisco. He has over twenty years of C-level operations experience, including turnarounds and a VC-funded startup. He earned his BA and MBA in Texas and his MA in Oklahoma, worked in both states for years, including a decade as General Manager and COO of a large Ford dealership and its subsidiaries. But one day, he quit and went to France for seven weeks to open himself up to new possibilities, which degenerated into a life-altering three-year journey across 100 countries on all continents, much of it overland. And it almost swallowed him up.