Study Shows Majority of Fossil Fuel Power Plants Could be Obsolete by 2035

Coal-fired power plant in Wyoming      Photo: Greg Goebel, Wikimedia CC

By Amy Lupica, ODP Contributing Writer

A vast majority of fossil fuel power plants will reach the end of their lives by 2035, a new report shows. Experts say that this revelation shows that President-elect Joe Biden’s climate goals aren’t as lofty as they may have once seemed, according to Inside Climate News. However, the study’s author, Emily Grubert, an environmental engineering professor at Georgia Tech, warns that communities need to plan for the transition because, according to the report, “fossil fuel plants operate in about 40 percent of U.S. counties and about 157,000 people work at the plants or in jobs related to extracting fuel for the plants.”

Why This Matters: President-Elect Biden has planned to transition the United States to net zero emissions by 2050 and carbon-free electricity by 2035.  However, he has faced criticism from some left-leaning environmentalists for refusing to ban all hydraulic-fracturing and for claiming that fracked natural gas is needed and thus fracking must continue in order to successfully transition away from coal plants. Grubert argues that implementing Biden’s current plan, “is probably easier than people expected” because most fossil fuel-powered plants will be “retired” by then.  She explains that anticipated job losses can be managed because “we do have time to plan for this.” But she also argues that new gas-fired plants should not be built because those would outlast the 2035 carbon-free electricity deadline.

Early Retirement

Grubert compiled data to create an actuarial table for the nation’s fossil fuel power plants and found that by 2035, 85% of currently existing plants will have reached the end of their production lives. That leaves only 15% that would remain to be shut down by regulatory policy. Based on her research, Grubert says that the last fossil fuel plants will reach the end of their life spans by 2066.

These life spans imply that the President-Elect doesn’t need to worry as much about shutting down operating plants but Instead must focus on what ends up replacing them. To reach net-zero emissions by 2050, there can be no new fossil fuel plants. Grubert warns utility companies and regulators that any new plants that crop up during that time, will likely be shut down, leading to massive financial losses. “The policies and the general climate needs that we’re seeing suggest that anything new would be stranded,” she said. If companies can resist opening new operations, Grubert says that any losses brought on by federal shutdowns will be minimal.

Always Have a Plan

Grubert warns that without careful planning, the loss of this industry could have devastating effects on workers. She compares the potential consequences to the collapse of the U.S. steel industry in the 1970s and 80s, pointing out that any new jobs created by clean energy may not be in the same places or benefit the same people who lost jobs at power plants.

In the past, rust belt residents have often been left behind by industry and the government. During his administration, President Trump repeatedly promised the people of coal country that he would bring their jobs back but failed them. He also attempted to revive manufacturing in the region, but even those factories he visited himself suffered. Grubert emphasizes that do right by power plant workers in the coming years, there must be a plan in place to support them through the shift.

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