Republican rhetoric about the Obama administration’s alleged ‘war on coal’ has been heated, and frequently repeated over the past eight years—but it’s wrong. The only war against coal is being waged by market forces, in the form of plentiful and cheap natural gas, low or stagnant electric demand growth, cleaner and ever-cheaper solar and wind, and finally being forced to pay the bill for years of environmental neglect. And the market forces—those same brutally efficient and unemotional market forces that Republicans so cherish in the abstract—are winning.
The Energy Information Administration reported earlier this month that more than 80 percent of the almost 18,000 megawatts of generating capacity retired in 2015 was coal-fired. At first blush (and certainly for the conspiracy-minded) that sounds implausible. But a closer look at the numbers reveals a much different story.
All told, 94 coal-fired units were retired in 2015, and as a group they were much smaller and older than the rest of the coal fleet. Specifically, EIA says the average age of the units retired in 2015 was 54, compared to 38 years for the plants still in operation. Similarly, the retired plants had an average net summer capacity of 133 MW, compared to 278 MW for the remaining coal fleet.
The EIA graphic below does a great job of visualizing the disparity between the two classes of plants.