By Benjamin Storrow

President Trump says he ended the “war on coal.” But industry casualties have accelerated under his turbulent leadership, with coal plant retirements eclipsing those that occurred during the last four years of Barack Obama’s presidency.

Electricity output from coal slumped to a 42-year low in 2019 and plummeted even deeper as the coronavirus pandemic swept across the country. Renewable sources like wind and solar now generate more power than Trump’s favored fossil fuel. And utilities are planning to green their power plants instead of returning to the black rock.

Steve Cicala, a professor who studies power markets at the University of Chicago, reckons that coal has a more fundamental problem: Coal plants are more expensive to operate than their competitors. At the same time, he said, the low operating cost of gas and renewables has pushed wholesale electricity prices down, leaving coal even further out of the money.

Cicala argued there is little the Trump administration could have done to reverse plant closures given the wider economic and technological trend in America’s power markets. But he said the administration had made a mistake in attempting to fight for coal communities by bucking market signals.

“It’s like trying to keep telegraph workers employed. Communications moved beyond the telegraph. There are other things we can do. We have a much better technology for satisfying the need for energy,” Cicala said. “They could start thinking about helping the people who are defined by more than a specific dying occupation. They are people who want and need jobs. They have skills to do other things.”

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Areas of Focus: Energy Markets
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