US Coal Plants Capacity Could Fall by 88% by 2050 as Renewables Rise

The decline in coal capacity would depend on the cost of zero-carbon technologies


The capacity of coal-fired power plants in the United States could reduce by ~88% from the 2022 levels by 2050, as environmental regulations raise costs and new plants powered by natural gas and renewable energy displace the aging fleet, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

The drop in total coal-fired capacity includes about 99 GW to 159 GW of retiring coal-fired capacity and a small amount of coal-fired capacity projected to be converted to natural gas-fired ones.

Of the retirements, 61 GW come from coal-fired plants that owners and operators have already announced plans to retire. Various factors, such as an aging coal fleet, environmental regulations, and competition from natural gas-fired, solar, and wind projects, have contributed to the declining economics of coal-fired capacity.

For its estimations, the EIA considered three scenarios based on the regulations and the cost of renewable technologies.

Current Scenario

EIA noted that under the laws and regulations as of November 2022, the coal-fired capacity would fall by 64% to 73 GW by 2050.

In this case, the combined share from solar and wind will grow to 55% of total generation by 2050, with smaller percentages of 5% from coal, 22% from natural gas, and 11% from nuclear.

High Zero-Carbon Technology Cost Scenario

IEA states that when zero-carbon technology costs more than IEA’s reference case, coal-fired capacity will drop 52% to 97 GW by 2050. Technology costs for zero-carbon resources such as renewables, nuclear, and battery storage will stay flat at 2022 levels through 2050. This assumption results in less retirement of coal-fired generating capacity.

In this case, coal would produce 8% of U.S. electricity generation in 2050, with a combined 40% from solar and wind, 31% from natural gas, and 13% from nuclear.

Low zero-carbon technology cost

If zero-carbon technology costs less than the current scenario, the coal-fired capacity will fall 88% to 23 GW by 2050. Here IEA assumes the cost of zero-carbon technologies to decline by about 40% by 2050 compared to the reference case.

In this case, solar and wind will generate 69% of electricity in 2050 compared with only 1% from coal, 11% from natural gas, and 12% from nuclear.

All cases reflect laws and regulations adopted through mid-November, including the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which provides tax credits for zero-emission technologies that further reduce the cost of resources such as solar and wind.

The coal-fired generation in all three cases comes from the newer, more efficient coal-fired power plants that will remain online because they can provide lower-cost, dispatchable power to the grid.

Last October, the International Energy Agency forecasted that global CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion would grow by just under 1% this year as the strong expansion of renewables and electric vehicles prevents a sharper rise.