Shuttering fossil fuel plants in the US should be done judiciously

5 Desember 2020

The United States will seek to decarbonize its electricity production by 2035 under a new administration that is expected to enter office in January, but the move can be less of a shock to the system with proper forward thinking, an expert says.

Based on her model, shutting down fossil fuel plants in five years would eliminate only 15% of capacity-years left in fossil fuel-powered plants because many plants are already ageing and will need to be retired anyhow. In the decade between 2009 and 2018, for example, as much as 126 gigawatts of fossil generator capacity was taken offline, including 33 gigawatts in just two years: 2017 and 2018.

“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,” explains  Emily Grubert, a scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology who is the author of a new study published in the journal Science.

“[B]ecause 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,” she adds.

Decarbonizing the electricity sector of the United States and other industrialized nations will be key to lowering carbon emissions worldwide as we seek to mitigate the effects of climate change, especially as global energy demands continue to increase. In the U.S. nearly three-quarters (73%) of fossil fuel-fired generation capacity (which produce 630 gigawatts out of a total 840 gigawatts) will have reached the end of its typical lifespan by 2035. By mid-century the percentage will balloon to 96%.

Some 13% of fossil fuel-fired generation capacity in the country that was online in 2018, amounting to a total of 110 gigawatts, had already exceeded its typical lifespan, the researcher says. She found that by 2035 the rate of shutting down fossil fuel-based electricity generators would strand about 15% (equivalent to 1,700 gigawatt-years) of capacity life, along with about 20% (380,000 job-years) of direct power plant and fuel extraction jobs that existed in 2018.

Yet closing these plants down in favor of greener energy sources will come with certain economic consequences, not least to the people who depend on them for their livelihoods.

In 2018, fossil fuel facilities were operated in nearly 1,250 of 3,141 counties around the U.S. and they employed about 157,000 people at the various generators and fuel extraction facilities. “Closing large industrial facilities like power plants can be really disruptive for the people who work there and live in the surrounding communities,” Grubert says.

“We don’t want to repeat the damage we saw with the collapse of the steel industry in the 1970s and ’80s, where people lost jobs, pensions, and stability without warning,” she explains. “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.”

New job creation and revenue replacement schemes can aid these communities. “[W]e need to have explicit plans for closures both to ensure the system keeps working and to limit disruption for host communities,” she says.

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