While the economy struggles to recover from the pandemic, an unexpected casualty that may not survive is the coal industry.
The global coal industry will “never recover” from the Covid-19 pandemic, industry observers predict, because the crisis has proved renewable energy is cheaper for consumers and a safer bet for investors.
A long-term shift away from dirty fossil fuels has accelerated during the lockdown, bringing forward power plant closures in several countries and providing new evidence that humanity’s coal use may finally have peaked after more than 200 years.
Even before the pandemic, the industry was under pressure due to heightened climate activism, divestment campaigns and cheap alternatives. The lockdown has exposed its frailties even further, wiping billions from the market valuations of the world’s biggest coal miners.
As demand for electricity has fallen, many utilities have cut back on coal first, because it is more expensive than gas, wind and solar. In the EU imports of coal for thermal power plants plunged by almost two-thirds in recent months to reach lows not seen in 30 years. The consequences have been felt around the world as well.
This week, a new report by the US Energy Information Administrationprojected the US would produce more electricity this year from renewables than from coal for the first time. Industry analysts predict coal’s share of US electricity generation could fall to just 10% in five years, down from 50% a decade ago. Despite Donald Trump’s campaign pledge to “dig coal”, there are now more job losses and closures in the industry than at any time since Eisenhower’s presidency 60 years ago. Among the latest has been Great River Energy’s plan to shut down a 1.1-gigawatt thermal plant in North Dakota and replace it with wind and gas.
“The economics of coal were already under structural pressure before the pandemic,” said Mark Lewis, the head of sustainability research at the investment management arm of French bank BNP Paribas. “And coming out of it these pressures will still be there – but now compounded by the impact of the pandemic.”
While nobody is expecting coal to disappear any time soon, Ted Nace, director of Global Energy Monitor, believes the balance has shifted for good. “Coal is definitely on the downturn and this pandemic is going to accelerate that. Demand should come back to some degree next year. But there is a very strong argument that it is not going to just bounce back.”
Invertors all over the world are shifting their attention away from coal due to “rising climate concerns, cheaper renewable energy alternatives and a public backlash against air pollution.”
Apart from its negative impact on the climate, coal mining is a brutal profession that takes an immense physical toll on the miners. It is understandable that miners and the communities they live in may want to keep the industry alive in order to save their jobs but the price they are paying in terms of their lives and health is enormous.
Trump used to talk about how he would bring back coal to its former pre-eminence as a source of energy. He does not do that anymore, though it is not clear whether it is because he got distracted by other things or because he does not want to remind people of yet another failed promise. We’ll know when he holds a rally in coal country.