Should we start saying goodbye to coal for good, and hello to renewable energy instead?
This October saw the shutdown of three Texas coal power plants whose combined output was enough to power 2.1 million Texas homes.
Luminant, a subsidiary of Vistra Energy Corp. and Texas’s largest power generator, said it was retiring these plants because they simply could no longer compete. Coal energy just wasn’t profitable when compared with “sustained low wholesale power prices, an oversupplied renewable generation market, and low natural gas prices, along with other factors.”
Texas is the largest consumer of energy in the United States and, it appears, a canary in a literal coal mine when it comes to national energy trends. As the sun sets on the coal era, Texas will lead the national conversation about where the majority of our power supply ought to come from—and if trends continue, set a positive example for renewable energy.
The End of the Coal Era
Coal has a long history in this country. Americans have relied on coal energy to light their houses since 1882, when the first central commercial power plant in the world opened for business in Manhattan. Indeed, the three plants that Luminant shut down in Texas were some of the oldest in the state: The “Big Brown” plant had just turned 46.
However, coal is undoubtedly in decline. Every day people are growing more and more wary of its polluting emissions and unsustainable mining practices; additionally, continually sinking energy prices for other technologies make it more difficult for coal power plants to stay in business.
According to this chart by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, coal is finally seeing an end to its 50% hold on the power grid as natural gas and renewable energy solutions rise in prominence. In fact, last year, for the first time ever, natural gas surpassed coal as the primary source for electric generation:
While the national trend points to a gradual drop in reliance on coal energy, the change in Texas seems to be coming quicker. After all, the state saw the closure of three plants responsible for 2,300 megawatts of electricity almost overnight. This sudden dip in the market presents a unique opportunity for Texas to pioneer major changes to the power grid.
Renewable Energy: Texas Leads The Way
Already, Texas is particularly forward-thinking when it comes to renewable energy. According to this chart from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), Texas has been steadily increasing its reliance on environmentally-friendly wind energy for years:
Today, Texas is the United State’s leading generator of electricity through wind. Not only is this great news for the environment; it promises low real-time electricity prices for Texas, too. That’s because the cost of wind power is entirely upfront in the installation process—after that, it costs hardly anything to harvest wind energy from a functioning windmill.
As wind energy proves profitable for Texas, an increasing portion of the power grid is turning to other kinds of renewable energy, like solar energy, too. If this trend keeps up, there’s no doubt that the real-time rate of electricity in Texas will continue to fall, setting the tone for the rest of the nation.
A Future Without Coal
The coal era is ending, but Texans don’t need to mourn for it. The very month that Luminant shuttered three coal power plants, ERCOT had 48 gigawatts of new power generation projects under study, with 8.7 GW coming exclusively from wind energy projects.
Other than a marked observation in reduced prices, the average Texas consumer may not notice the end of coal energy. Our state is simply moving on to more modern energy solutions. The combination of these factors will result in lower electricity prices and decreases in greenhouse gas emissions.