Peabody Energy's North Antelope Rochelle mine in Wyoming's Powder River Basin is one of the largest coal mines in the world. (courtesy Peabody Energy)

The retirement schedule for America’s coal-fired power plants is likely to accelerate, moving up the timeline for big changes in communities that rely on the facilities — and the mines that supply them — for jobs and tax revenue.

The U.S. is on track to cut its coal-based power capacity in half by 2026 from peak levels in 2011, according to a new report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. Reaching that milestone is closer than once thought “despite pandemic-induced supply disruptions that have led to delays in the completion of new generation resources and significant price volatility for [natural] gas,” the Ohio-based energy analysis group said in the report.

New announcements for coal plant retirements and coal-to-natural gas conversions will likely continue to hasten the decline for coal-based power, the report’s author Seth Feaster said. Compounding coal power’s demise is the fact that utilities are also dialing back output at coal-fired power plants still in operation, hitting coal supply regions like Wyoming’s Powder River Basin even faster.

By that measure, the U.S. electrical power sector already cut its 2011 peak coal use by more than half in 2020 and 2022, according to the report. “So the pace of coal use is declining faster than the pace of decline in coal [power generation] capacity,” Feaster told WyoFile.

The U.S. is on track to cut its coal-based power capacity in half by 2026 from peak levels in 2011, according to the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. (IEEFA)

While coal plant closures are happening throughout the nation, the supply-side impacts are more narrowly focused on regions that mine thermal coal — coal that is burned to generate electricity — rather than regions that mine “metallurgic” coal used for steelmaking. Wyoming is the nation’s largest thermal coal supplier by volume, with more than 90% of its product shipped to U.S. coal-burning power plants. 

The coal plant retirement and fuel conversion outlook should put Wyoming on notice for significant shifts coming sooner rather than later, according to Feaster.

“This is definitely going to impact the Powder River Basin,” he said. “I suspect that the decline in coal consumption from the PRB is going to reflect this [utility coal use] trend overall.”

Coal’s slipping grip

Based on current plans and statements among U.S. utilities, coal capacity will fall to 159,000 megawatts by 2027 and to 116,000 megawatts by 2030, according to the IEEFA report. Utilities largely plan to replace that power-generation capacity with natural gas, as well as wind, solar and battery storage as costs for those technologies continue to decline.

Coal, which accounted for about half the nation’s electric generation in the early 2000s, made up only 20% of the sector in 2022. Coal’s power sector share could fall to 17% this year, according to the Energy Information Administration, while the IEEFA report estimates “a strong possibility” that coal will drop to 10% or lower by 2030.

Coal plants scheduled for retirement are typically 50 years old, or older, according to the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. (IEEFA)

“Quite simply, utilities no longer see coal as part of their future,” the report concluded.

Another factor driving the decommissioning of coal-fired power units is the fact that the U.S. coal fleet is old.

Coal units that have been retired in recent years were first commissioned in the 1970s, according to the report. Much of the remaining fleet is reaching the 50-year-old mark, and even beyond.

“For utilities, the rising cost of maintaining and operating these units, especially when cheaper, more flexible and far more technologically advanced generation alternatives are available, makes retirement an increasingly attractive option,” the report states.

The older the coal facility, the more difficult and expensive it is to maintain, Feaster said. That creates a reliability risk.

“They’re using older technology,” Feaster said. “It’s tough to compete against a new combined-cycle [natural] gas plant, for example. [Aging coal units are] not responsive in the same way that gas combined-cycle gas plants are, or batteries for that matter.”

It’s unlikely that carbon capture, use and sequestration technologies will help extend the life of existing coal-fired power plants — especially if they’re 40-50 years old, Feaster added.

“It’s incredibly expensive,” Feaster said, adding that the cost to retrofit an existing coal plant with CCUS can cost about $1 billion. It can also take years to permit and build such a massive retrofit on a coal plant. “Ratepayers are not going to want to subsidize power that’s twice as expensive as what [electricity] is right now.” 

Wyoming impacts

The findings of the IEEFA report parallel plans among coal-burning utilities in Wyoming.

PacifiCorp, which operates as Rocky Mountain Power in Wyoming, Utah and Idaho, announced last week that its “preferred portfolio” includes an accelerated shift away from coal and toward more renewables, natural gas and possibly nuclear power.

Jim Bridger Plant workers at a station where plant employees can pick up the tools they need. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

Of the utility’s 11 coal-fired power units currently operating in Wyoming, for example, only two will continue burning coal beyond 2030 — Wyodak near Gillette and Unit 4 at the Dave Johnston plant in Glenrock — according to the utility’s biennial Integrated Resource Plan.

Major coal producers have read the coal market trends and have begun to adapt, too, Feaster said. Both Arch Resources and Peabody Energy — which, combined, make up more than half the coal production in the Powder River Basin — have focused their capital spending on metallurgical coal. Arch has said it plans to close its western thermal coal operations, and is using the current profitability of its Black Thunder mine in Wyoming to pay for its cleanup and closure costs.

Arch has not set a closure date for the mine.

The findings of the IEEFA report come as no surprise to most in Campbell County or Wyoming, said Rusty Bell, former Campbell County Commissioner. 

Bell was recently appointed to coordinate local economic diversification efforts with the federal Coal Communities program. He disagrees with skepticism that CCUS is too expensive to retrofit existing coal-fired power plants, he said. However, coal communities in Wyoming have long recognized the need to plan for a major decline in mining due to power market shifts.

“That’s the reality of the market,” Bell said. “And Wyoming — certainly Campbell County and all the other coal reliant communities — are trying to prepare, trying to be proactive, trying to do different things to get into different markets.”

Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 25 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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  1. There are two inevitable things that I see in Wyoming’s future. Coal production will decline and the population of the State will increase. Pretty simple but that’s what I see.

  2. The US needs to stop infighting and get on the same page with our energy future. Wyoming should be a leader of renewables, in addition to inviting other industries to the state, like the film and television industry. Heaven forbid we stop pretending that it’s the 1800s and become a modern place to live. Believe me, there’s not going to be a flood of people wanting to live in the snow and wind, but at least we can keep more of the youth here and avoid sliding into economic failure. We already take more money from the federal government than most states, because we don’t want to pay our taxes. Call that a Marxist principle, but this is not what Adam Smith planned. That invisible hand went global, which didn’t work out so well for the most of us.

  3. Perhaps Wyoming politicians will someday soon see the writing on the wall and actually do something to help Wyoming thrive in the 21st Century.

  4. I think America is setting ourselves up for failure based of the false information pushed by the Marxist propaganda. Climate experts have said that global climate crisis is not supported by the science.China is building new coal fired facilities every day. Germany had shut their coal facilities down only recently to bring them back online. I would hate to see America follow the false agenda to the point that the coal producing infrastructure is gone only to find out that it was a false road that was followed. Like many things in our world today the coal industry has fallen into the political trap based on false propaganda. Follow the climate science people not the politicians. Experienced experts in the industry such as Dave Walsh has said we are loosing our base load power supply to renewables that don’t provide consistent base load power. Wind and solar is not going to provide this base load power and it is very expensive. It also is not friendly for the environment.

    1. The claim of “marxist propaganda” negates everything else you said. Get out of your echo chamber.

      1. Aside from the political part go follow Dave Walsh Energy on Gttr or truth social. Dave has been involved in building power plants around the world.

    2. Please–“Marxist propaganda”??? Seriously? And no, “climate experts” overwhelmingly agree that we are in danger from human-caused warming, with probable disastrous consequences. This is what comes when folks on the right enclose themselves in hermetically sealed FRW media!

  5. Bottom Line : Why did it take Wyoming so long to read the handwriting on the wall ?

    1. It didn’t take the that long. I retired from one of the biggest coal mines in Wyoming. They have been track it for years now.

    2. The answer is money, backward thinking, and jobs. We have gotten so used to a carbon-based economy that it is hard, to near impossible to switch. Our Wyoming tax based on carbon has been the main source of income for the state. Oil, gas, the railroad, ranching, and coal built Wyoming. Things have changed but the people of Wyoming haven’t. The buggy whip industry has long ago disappeared but the mentality hasn’t. The rest of the nation has had to adapt and diversify. Wyoming hasn’t.

  6. All this as China opens two new coal fired plants a week. Smell coming out of DC and it ain’t good

  7. Today, my intel friends tell me the CCP is building simultaneously in China 48 brand new coal fired power plants for immediate use. This is in addition to some 1,500 existing plants. Similar construction is on-going in India.
    Those facts underscore a massive appetite for coal across the globe. Rather than close mines in Wyoming, can someone explanation why we are not exporting our coal?
    Even Germany, with their foolish closures of nuke and natural gas, has turned to coal. Why are we not their supplier.
    Would love an explanation.

    1. Well one of the reasons is states between Wyoming and the West coast have blocked the rail transport through their states to reach the West coast. The coal mines were going to build a new shipping facility there which would have kept Wyoming mines going strong for years into the future.

  8. no worries
    china will need coal for the next 100 years.
    with more coal fired plants than any country,china will need to import coal form
    not just australia but the united states as well.

    1. Actually, it won’t. It will need coal in quantity for the next 60 years. China’s coal reserves are more than enough to handle the demand. China buys other nations’ coal literally to preserve its capabilities in the long run. Chinese economists plan the Chinese economy in five-year increments, 10-year increments, 20-year increments, and 100-year increments. That is what Marxists do. All centrally planned economies have failed in less than 100 years, but the economists still control the actual economic planning. (I used to study Soviet and Chinese economies for a living quite a while ago.) Both Russia and China have centrally planned economies.

      1. China has been building coal plants year after year and has not included the environmental controls US and European countries require. Walk around their larger cities and you’ll get to enjoy your respiratory system filled with coal dust. The Chinese wear masks for a reason.