The US Power Sector’s Decade In Review: Clean Energy Ascendant, Fossil Fuels Intransigent

December 20, 2019 | 5:15 pm
Omari Spears/UCS
Julie McNamara
Senior Energy Analyst

For the long-plodding electricity sector, “transition” doesn’t begin to convey the stunning magnitude of what this decade just saw transpire. At the same time, the magnitude of what’s just occurred is only beginning to approach the magnitude of what we need to achieve in the years to come.

Which brings us to this: for the power sector, a decade of unbelievable progress mixed with a decade of unnerving insufficiency. Clean energy momentum coupled with fossil fuel intransigence. The upending of coal, and the attempted anchoring of gas. New business models, and old polluter fights.

In a decade where the urgency of climate progress was made startlingly clear, when the impacts of that changing climate resulted in mounting clashes with the power grid itself, there was still again, and again, and again, around every corner a fight.

But fight we all did, and progress we made.

Below, some colleagues on the UCS energy team reflect on just a few of the important power sector milestones passed in the last 10 years, necessarily co-considering the ascendance of clean energy against the fate of fossil fuels, from the toppling of coal to the escalating—and ongoing—battle with natural gas.

As we look ahead to the 2020s, to the pivotal pathways that will bring us to that better place, we reckon with the towering demands still left, and recognize that which is impossible to miss: it will be a fight, but energy is on clean energy’s side.


Policies give renewables wings; the sun sets on building new coal

Author: James Gignac

Clean Energy: The 2010s dawned with state energy policies driving growth in clean energy. For example, in the Midwest, Minnesota and Illinois enacted renewable portfolio standards (RPSs) in 2007 to require 25 percent or more of electricity to come from sources like wind and solar by 2025. By 2010, these 2 states were on their way toward top-10 rankings nationwide for installed wind power. While state RPS policies would require updates—particularly in Illinois—the initial legislation jump-started clean energy development that would continue to grow throughout the decade.

Fossil Fuels: As renewable energy embarked on its decade-long expansion, 2010 also brought the beginning of the end of the rush to build new risky and polluting coal-fired power plants. Instead, an opposite trend emerged—rather than making disastrous new investments in coal, utilities across the country started retiring existing coal plants, a crucial reversal for much-needed climate progress.


Grid investments help bring renewables online; coal plant mercury emissions are controlled

Author: Sam Gomberg

Clean Energy: The Mid-Continent System Operator (MISO), which operates the bulk transmission system across the central US, approved $5.2 billion for 17 transmission projects (collectively known as the Multi-Value Projects, or “MVPs”) to enable the region’s growing demand for renewable energy. Analysis at the time estimated the benefits would outweigh the costs by more than 2-to-1. In its latest review of the projects (2017), MISO estimated the economic benefits would produce between $2.20 and $3.40 for every dollar invested, equating to tens of billions of dollars in consumer benefits.

Fossil Fuels: On December 16, 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized its Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), which aimed to reduce coal- and oil-fired power plant emissions of mercury, arsenic, chromium, and other toxic air pollutants linked to cancer, neurological damage, heart disease, and other public health threats. Despite ensuing legal challenges and attacks from the Trump Administration, the rule has been an indisputable public-health success, leading to significant reductions in mercury emissions and forcing the nation’s polluting coal fleet – which had been getting a pass – to either install adequate controls or retire.


Wind power soars to new heights; community action topples a local public health offender

Author: Jessica Collingsworth

Clean Energy: Nationally, wind power additions hit a new record with 13.1 gigawatts of new capacity added and $25 billion invested. At the end of 2012, the US wind industry was supporting 80,700 jobs, 30,000 of which were in the Midwest. Strong renewable energy policies triggered this growth, and they continue to make the Midwest region a leader on wind generation.

Fossil Fuels: In 2012 the Chicago Clean Power Coalition secured closure of two of the nation’s oldest and dirtiest coal plants, Fisk and Crawford Generating Stations. Chicago was the last major U.S. city with two coal plants operating within city limits, exposing residents to harmful air pollutants produced by the estimated 2.5 million tons of coal burned per year. By closing both plants before 2030, over 1,200 premature deaths and close to 750 heart attacks were avoided.


Policies influence clean energy trajectories for better and worse; natural gas industry is put on notice and nuclear plants’ economics are challenged

Author: Steve Clemmer

Clean Energy: California adopted a landmark storage procurement framework and established a target for 1.3 gigawatts (GW) of energy storage—positioning storage to race to the rescue just three years later following the Aliso Canyon natural gas leak disaster. Conversely, lack of policy certainty led to a 2013 low-point for the US wind industry, despite the fact that wind power had become cheaper than natural gas and coal in many parts of the country and was delivering important economic benefits. New wind capacity additions dropped by more than 90 percent from the previous year’s record high, as Congress allowed the federal production tax credit (PTC) to expire. Though Congress did later extend it, as with previous expirations and short-term extensions of the PTC, the results of the policy uncertainty demonstrated the need for more stable, long-term policy support at both the state and national levels to ensure continued growth of the renewable energy industry, create new jobs, and lower costs.

Fossil Fuels: UCS put the natural gas industry on notice, releasing a position statement and report warning of the climate risks of an overreliance on natural gas. We were also reminded in 2013 that nuclear power was definitely not “too cheap to meter.” The San Onofre (CA), Crystal River (FL), and Kewaunee (WI) nuclear plants shut down due to failed steam generator replacements, low natural gas prices, falling wind and solar costs, and flat electricity demand. These shut-downs, along with announcements to close other nuclear plants, ignited a debate among policymakers and regulators about the impact of early nuclear retirements and its role in fighting climate change, which is still playing out today.


Solar power surges; landmark federal power plant carbon standards proposed

Author: Julie McNamara

Clean Energy: Solar power is On the Rise! In the midst of what was ultimately a stunner of a solar decade, 2014 saw prices tumbling, installations surging, jobs growing, and records repeatedly smashed. Ultimately, the levelized cost of solar plummeted 89 percent over the 2010s, and installations surpassed 2 million—notably, though the first million took 40 years, the second million took just 3. And with all that added clean energy, 2014 marked the first year that non-hydro renewables (like wind, solar, and geothermal) overtook hydro in annual generation, and together all renewables represented more than half of 2014’s electricity capacity additions.

Fossil Fuels: The Obama Administration’s EPA officially proposed the Clean Power Plan (CPP), a landmark rule for regulating carbon emissions from fossil fuel-fired power plants. The CPP, strengthened and finalized in 2015, reflected the EPA’s legal obligation to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from major sources. Though subsequently attacked by fossil fuel interests and undermined by the Trump administration, the standard ushered in a new era of recognizing federal obligation to act, and the CPP pointed the electricity sector down a cleaner path.


Paris Agreement establishes trajectory toward equitable global clean energy transition; coal plant retirements set records

Authors: Rachel Cleetus (clean energy), Jeremy Richardson (fossil fuels)

Clean Energy: The Paris Agreement articulated the following goal: “Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.” To achieve this, nations agreed to undertake rapid reductions in carbon emissions in accordance with the best available science and in an equitable way. That clear signal, accompanied by steep cost declines in renewable energy and policy pushes around the world, helped unleash incredible global momentum in committing to and delivering on ambitious renewable energy goals. For example, in Paris, India announced a global alliance with 120 countries to ramp up solar energy, and itself committed to installing 100 GW of solar by 2022. Still, nations can and must do much more to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels to zero-carbon energy if we are to meet the Paris Agreement goals.

Fossil Fuels: 15 GW of coal-fired generating capacity shut down in 2015, the highest of any year in the decade (although 2018—despite the Trump administration’s ongoing efforts to prop up the industry—came close). Closures were the result of multiple factors, including poor economics compared to lower-cost natural gas and renewables, as well as achieving compliance with MATS. Facing the costs of installing pollution control equipment or replacing coal plants with cheaper natural gas generation, many utilities opted to close smaller and older units in particular—of the coal units retired in 2015, the average capacity was 129 MW and the average age was 56 years.


Offshore wind sets sail; coal dethroned as largest source of electricity generation

Author: Paula García

Clean Energy: The Block Island Wind Farm, the first offshore wind facility in the US, started operations in 2016. This project has 5 powerful wind turbines and an installed capacity of 30 megawatts (MW). Block Island marked a breakthrough for the technology that is new for the US but not for the world. Since then, states from Maine to Virginia have set offshore wind requirements that add up to more than 20,000 MW. This could cover the equivalent electricity demand of more than 10 million New England households.

Fossil Fuels: 2016 was the second year in a row showing a decline in global demand for coal. During this year, worldwide consumption fell 1.7 percent, driven mainly by the US and China. In the U.K., the cradle of the industrial revolution, coal consumption fell by more than 50 percent to levels not seen since the 1800s. In the US, a 9 percent fall in coal consumption was triggered by cheap natural gas, and coal was dethroned from its long-time top electricity-generator spot.


Grid risks, and resilience, come into focus; the sun sets on new natural gas plants in California

Author: Mark Specht

Clean Energy: The climate crisis made itself clearly known to the US power grid in 2017, contributing to natural disasters and electricity grid failures that wreaked havoc across the country. In Puerto Rico, Hurricane Maria caused the largest blackout in US history, and it took a shocking 11 months to fully restore power. In California, electrical equipment sparked the Tubbs fire, which killed over 20 people while burning thousands of structures and tens of thousands of acres. These not-so-natural disasters sent a strong message that we need to build (or rebuild) resilient power systems while continuing to invest in clean energy solutions that mitigate the worst impacts of climate change.

Fossil Fuels: While the rest of the United States continued to build new natural gas power plants at a rapid clip, 2017 was the beginning of the end for natural gas power plants in California. A highly contested proposal to build a new gas plant, the Puente power project, was ultimately rejected by the California Energy Commission in the face of overwhelming public opposition. This rejection signaled the end of new natural gas power plants in the state. Meanwhile, California’s gas capacity continued to decline from its 2013 peak.


Hawaii shows leadership–again; Trump administration’s attempted coal plant bailouts roundly rejected

Author: Joe Daniel

Clean Energy: Three years after Hawaii became the first state to pass a 100 percent RPS, it next became the first state to pass legislation to become carbon neutral. But hope need not be a glimmer far from the mainland: other states also had a landmark year. California joined Hawaii in passing a 100 percent carbon-free electricity policy of its own, followed by scores of cities, and Xcel Energy which became the first major utility to voluntarily commit to becoming net zero carbon.

Fossil Fuels: Coal plants continued their slide, with megawatts retired in 2018 second only to 2015’s record year. Attempts by the federal government to bail out coal plants, meanwhile, were met with near unanimous opposition. Odd pairings (like oil and gas companies and trade groups teaming up with renewable energy trade associations; or, free-market conservatives partnering with progressive organizations) emerged to push back and ultimately help prevent climate backsliding.


Rush of states commit to 100-percent clean electricity; retiring coal plants get larger and states tackle the challenges of transition head-on

Author: Jeff Deyette

Clean Energy: State RPSs have been a primary driver of wind, solar, and other clean energy technologies for more than two decades. Over the years, most of the 29 states with a RPS have extended and increased their renewable energy targets; some numerous times. But 2019 will be remembered as the year of states going 100 percent. Following on the heels of Hawaii (in 2015) and California (in 2018), another six states—Maine, New Mexico, New York, Washington, Nevada, and New Jersey—plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico made various commitments toward achieving 100 percent renewable or clean electricity over the next few decades. Strong bipartisan public support, low wind and solar prices, and increased resource reliability, as well as a wave of progressive climate leaders taking elected office, have all contributed to the 100 percent momentum sweeping across the country.

Fossil Fuels: As wind and solar continued to gain market share, the coal industry continued its decade-long decline in 2019. The main difference from years past has been that more and more of the nation’s largest coal plants are now shuttering due to economic pressures. For example, Arizona’s Navajo Generating Station—the largest coal plant in the West—and the mammoth 2.7-gigawatt Bruce Mansfield plant in Pennsylvania both closed in 2019. According to Scientific American, these two retirements “equal all the emission reductions from coal plant shut-downs in 2015, a record year when 15 GW of mostly smaller and older units were shuttered.” While major coal retirements like these curb carbon and health-harming emissions, the major economic toll on the communities where they are located made it encouraging to see two states—New Mexico and Colorado—pass legislation this year to leverage a financial tool called securitization to facilitate retirement and thoughtfully advance worker and community transition efforts.

Posted in: Energy

Tags: 2019, clean energy, renewables

About the author

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Julie McNamara is a senior energy analyst with the Climate & Energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Her research focuses on policies and measures that facilitate a rapid, sustained, and broadly beneficial transition of our nation’s energy system.