Coal has been our dominant source of energy for more than a century, powering the Industrial Revolution and generated electricity for millions of households. But nothing lasts forever.
A new study by the London-based think tank Carbon Tracker highlights just what that demise looks like. According to their numbers, around 42 percent of the world’s coal plants are losing money.
The claims echoes similar statistics we've been hearing over the past few years. A study published last year found that in many places in the United States, a utility could actually save money by bulldozing an existing coal plant and building a brand new wind farm in its place. This might sound strange, but the truth is that coal is an expensive fuel, coal plants are costly to run, and the problem will only get worse.
Carbon Tracker examined 6,500-plus coal plants around the world using machine learning and satellite images. With this data, the think tank was able to estimate the production even in places like China that don’t make their financial information publicly available (coal plants in North America and Europe make this data public). The organization found that nearly half were operating at a lower capacity than they were designed for. In other words, they weren’t producing enough power to make up for their operating costs.
The worst country for coal right now is China, which runs more than a thousand of these under-capacity plants. In second place is the United States, followed closely by India and the E.U. with around 200 such plants apiece. A collection of other countries, including Japan, Russia, South Africa, and South Korea round out the rest of that list, with a few dozen underperforming coal plants each.
If these coal plants are really losing money, then why are they still up and running? According to Carbon Tracker, it’s because taxpayers are keeping them afloat. Here in the United States, we pay billions of dollars in subsidies to prevent hundreds of coal plants from closing. According to the calculations from Carbon Tracker, the U.S. could save around $78 billion if we closed most of our coal plants over the next few decades.
Continuing to prop up coal could worsen the problem. By 2040, around 72 percent of the world’s coal plants will be unprofitable, meaning the costs to subsidize those losses will skyrocket. If we don’t start replacing our coal plants with more profitable renewables soon, we could all end up paying the price.
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