Closing fossil fuel plants may cost less than expected

fossil fuel power plant
Source: Petr Štefek (Via: Wikimedia)
Closing fossil fuel plants will be cheaper and easier than previously expected as many are coming to the end of their lifespans.

By Rowenna Hoskin | Science Editor

The U.S is the second largest carbon dioxide producer in the world, second only to China. The shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy is often considered to be a large change that will require a lot of money as decarbonizing U.S electricity production will require both construction of renewable energy sources and the retirement of fossil-fuel powered power plants. 

The cost of this may not be as high as previously considered according to an article in the journal Science as most fossil fuel power plants are going to be closed by 2035 as so many of the facilities are nearing the end of their 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 the U.S fossil fuel-fired generation capacity, 73% (630 out of 840 gigawatts) will reach the end of its regular lifespan by 2035; dropping to 96% by 2050, she says in the Policy Forum article.

“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 mean that the investment into new fossil fuels will be prevented and workers will be able to plan their futures.

“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.

The transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy will be a major change for society and a big change for individuals in the fossil fuel industry. With a clear plan in place, society can move forward with a knowledge of what the future holds. One thing is for certain, fossil fuels cannot replace the power plants that are coming to the end of their term.

Science and Technology Rowenna Hoskin

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