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Biden infrastructure plan may hasten decline of coal

By Bill Stephens | April 1, 2021

Majority of domestic coal traffic is for power plants, a target of climate-change efforts

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Two rows of coal hoppers
Two rows of coal hoppers
BNSF Railway coal trains meet in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming in October 2020. BNSF was by far the top coal-hauler in the industry last year. (Bill Stephens)

The Biden administration’s proposal to eliminate carbon emissions from electricity generation by 2035, if approved by Congress, would add to railroads’ coal traffic blues. President Joe Biden on Wednesday unveiled his $2 trillion infrastructure plan, which includes the proposal to wean electricity producers from fossil fuels as a way to fight climate change. About 92% of the coal consumed in the U.S. is used to generate electricity, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, and railroads haul the vast majority of that coal from mines to power plants. Railroads’ coal traffic has been declining for the past decade as low-cost natural gas and renewable energy projects have pushed coal aside as a source for generating electricity. Coal generated less than 20% of U.S. electricity last year, down from 48% in 2008, according to the EIA. Despite these trends, coal still accounted for 12% of total U.S. rail volume last year, according to data from the Association of American Railroads. Coal was the largest single carload commodity that U.S. Class I railroads hauled in 2020, AAR data show. And coal brought in about $7 billion in revenue for the seven Class I railroads last year, according to a review of railroads’ financial statements. Not all of that revenue came from coal delivered to U.S. utilities: Railroads also carry coal used in domestic steelmaking, and move coal to tidewater for export, to be used in foreign power plants and steel mills. But domestic power use is far and away the lion’s share of coal traffic in the U.S. The handwriting was already on the wall for coal-fired power generation, says Rob Godby, an economics professor who is deputy director of the University of Wyoming’s Center for Energy Regulation and Policy. The Biden plan would simply accelerate the decline of coal that has been under way for a decade, he says. Biden’s infrastructure bill would extend tax incentives for renewable energy for another decade while making power grid investments to support greater use of wind and solar power. And that, Godby says, will make it even tougher for coal to compete on an economic basis. “The bottom line is if this were to happen, you could say the Powder River Basin would almost entirely be shut down,” Godby says, referring to the coal fields that extend across northeastern Wyoming and into neighboring Montana. BNSF Railway and Union Pacific serve the Powder River Basin, which produces nearly half of the coal mined in the U.S. Already many renewable energy projects provide electricity more cheaply than coal, even without subsidies, Godby says. Transportation costs, meanwhile, can amount to three quarters of the delivered cost of coal to a power plant, he says. Those trends have led to coal producers seeking to sell their mines in the Powder River Basin. Last month Arch Resources announced it would shut down its Coal Creek mine in Wyoming in 2022. Arch also plans to trim production at its nearby Black Thunder Mine, the second-largest in the U.S. Biden’s infrastructure plan does include funding for up to 10 power plant carbon capture demonstration projects, Godby says. In order to become commercially viable, carbon capture would require technology and cost breakthroughs as well as the development of markets for carbon dioxide use, Godby says. Regardless of whether the Biden plan is ultimately approved, Godby expects coal to supply very little of the nation’s power by 2035. “Demand that will exist then will be a shadow of itself now,” he says.

20 thoughts on “Biden infrastructure plan may hasten decline of coal

  1. I once read an article that stated the coal burned from the contents of one unit coal train only 25% produces energy the remaining 75% just goes up the stack … sounds like the energy used to transport it cancels out what little energy it produces.

  2. Instead of finding uses for carbon dioxide…why not consider breaking it up into it’s base components, carbon and pure oxygen. Use the carbon to make carbon fiber and just pump the pure oxygen into the atmosphere. I think the same could be down the NOX emissions, and what whatever else is in power plant emissions. Just need to find out the power requirements and see how big a generating station you’d need to have to power it all and have enough to send to the grid.

  3. Not so fast on coals demise.. While it may decline. Utilities will want options. Wind and Solar are not cheaper. Without subsidies for both. They produce a negative return. Warren Buffett said it best. Without the credits Wind and Solar are not good investments

    1. Renewable sources of electricity generation are less expensive than coal today even without subsidy. When Buffett made his statement that was not the case.

  4. I find it highly unlikely that 75% of the energy in coal goes up the stack.

    Regarding breaking down carbon dioxide, they were combined to get the energy out of. Breaking it down would require putting the same amount of energy back in.

    Where are they going to get the money for this $2 trillion infrastructure plan and when are we going to run out of credit. Other countries have been down this road before and it doesn’t end well.

    1. I can tell you where they are going to get the $2 trillion. From our wallets. The same place democrats get most of their money.

  5. They will just print more money. By the way my 1954 rotary phone still works, but my iPhone 5c is not compatible with 5G so I needed to spend $175 so I could use a cell phone.

  6. The tipping point has been passed. Coal is not going to come back. They are working really hard on making steel with hydrogen instead of coal. I know it’s a tragedy for Wyoming but like the other guy said, you got to be willing to move where the jobs are. Wyoming is beautiful country but they got no future there.

    Nobody is going to win the argument saying the climate change is a myth. That ship has sailed. The smart move it so look for the next thing, and hope that it’s something that is clean and has a future. Even considering the problems they’re having with coal ash, You gotta know this is not going to end well for coal.
    Right now solar is the absolute cheapest source of energy. No subsidy involved. And when you add to that Elon Musk’s Megapack batteries, there is no stopping solar.
    If you read about that Australian power company that completely eliminated their coal peaked plants and paid for it all in months, you gotta know it’s over for coal. Sorry for the powder basin.

  7. Wind and solar are absolutely cheaper than coal now, even without subsidies. Coal’s time is past and it’s not coming back. Good riddance. We absolutely must reduce our carbon footprint unless we want our children to fry in 50 years. You think there are a lot of refugees now, wait until the temperature increases and millions are on the move because they can no longer live where they do because it’s too hot or sea level rise has destroyed their homes.

  8. Using thermal coal for baseload energy generation maybe over, but coal still has a very optimistic future as a component for other products. Everytime we think we have left some energy source as reaching unobtanium, free markets find new use cases. It will be back, probably not in our lifetimes, but it will be back.

  9. A coal fired generating station can produce 600 to 850 Megawatts of power on a daily basis, 24/7. Solar, doesn’t come close and with shorter Winter cloudy days, produces even worse.
    Wind generation also requires a huge amount of wind turbines to equal one coal fired plant.
    Either we cut back on consumption, reduce the population, or accept that we need coal fired stations.
    Nuclear power is an alternative, however, with recent accidents and acts of nature, people are frightened of them. However, they may generate 1200 MW each, 24/7 daily. How many solar cells and wind turbines will be needed to replace that? Especially with a growing population.
    Again, you get nothing for nothing!

  10. No one wants to see their vistas covered with windmills and solar panels. Climate change is a constant since day 1 of Earth. At one time the ocean covered half of the coastal states and filled deserts. Every year the earth gets slightly closer to the sun. Wind turbines absolutely ruin the environment. Scrapping all the trees off a mountain ridge and covering with windmills completely renders any nearby property worthless. I have also heard they can make noise and vibration for miles. With modern emission controls a power plant should run on NG and coal interchangeably. And can do so cleanly.

  11. …the agenda will use the analogy of horse and buggy to cars / coal to windmills but windmills have been around since way before coal fired power plants and there is a reason they are not mainstream

  12. The percentage of CO2 in the atmosphere is reported to be higher now than in a VERY long time, and is on a trend upward. This is a measurable phenomenon.
    Increased CO2 in the atmosphere traps heat-this is a measurable phenomenon. The effects of this are less defined, but very little good can come of the trend we are on. So why not work on making changes now? Are we doing anything for our descendants by ignoring this situation and pretending we can keep on consuming as we have been?
    Mr Welborn: I would be happy to see windmills on my farm in all directions. I have spent lots of time among the large wind farms in west central Indiana and the noise is minor, there is no vibration felt unless you are on the foundation, and they add value to property. This is a farmer’s perspective, in our county the NIMBY city folks share your perspective and took away the farmer’s rights to have them installed on OUR land.

  13. Biden’s plan for expanded use of electric vehicles is going to crash head-on into his call for a reduction of coal fired generation plants. Electricity has to come from somewhere and it is simply impossible to construct an adequate supply using wind turbines and solar farms. As we experienced in Texas this year, circumstances can shut down the renewable systems just when we need them the most. Their will be a resurgence in the coal industry as practical circumstances emerge.

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