Does coal stand a chance against renewable energy?
You might have heard the news that the first new coal mine in a decade opened this month in a small Pennsylvania town called Friedens. The Acosta Mine—the output from which will be used in the production of steel—is expected to employ between 70 and 100 people over 15 years, with salaries ranging between $50,000 and $100,000. President Donald Trump, a strong supporter of coal and fossil fuels in general, even appeared live on video during the grand opening, saying it “signals a new chapter in America’s long, proud coal mining tradition.”
Like the President, I applaud the mine’s opening. In a region that’s been hit particularly hard by the dramatic reduction in coal demand over the past five years alone, the local economy should benefit nicely from the fresh injection of high-paying jobs and tax revenue.
But does the Acosta Mine really “signal a new chapter”? Will it stanch the decades-long loss of coal mining jobs? Will it help make coal more competitive than natural gas or renewables such as wind and solar?
The simplest answer to the questions above is: Not likely. Energy markets are in full transition mode, both in the U.S. and abroad, and there really isn’t much that can be done to stop it, despite Trump’s best efforts.
An April study conducted by Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy concluded that “President Trump’s efforts to roll back environmental regulations will not materially improve economic conditions in America’s coal communities.” According to the report, nearly half of coal consumption’s decline can be attributed to increased competition from natural gas. Solar and wind are responsible for about 20 % of the decline. And as for industry regulations? They’re responsible for only 3.5 % of coal’s decay, the study’s researchers say.
In light of this, I think it would be prudent for investors in natural resources and energy to adjust their holdings to reflect this transition. In the past year, we’ve overweighed renewable energy stocks in our Global Resources Fund (PSPFX), and the allocation is now a core driver of the fund’s performance.
Coal at a tipping point
Let’s look at the facts. This month, just as Trump was celebrating the opening of a new coal mine, British oil and gas company BP reported in its annual review of global energy trends that coal production saw a record decline in 2016. Coal fell 6.2 % , or 231 million tons of oil equivalent (mtoe), on a global scale. In China, the decline was even more severe.
BP’s chief executive, Bob Dudley, showed little optimism that coal can be revived, even going so far as to say that 2016 marked the completion of “an entire cycle” for coal. Production and consumption were “falling back to levels last seen almost 200 years ago around the time of the Industrial Revolution,” he said, adding that the United Kingdom recorded its “first ever coal-free day in April of this year.”
The U.S. might not have had a coal-free day, but domestic consumption is definitely in freefall. Last year, for the first time ever, natural gas represented a larger share of U.S. electricity generation than coal. Gas provided 34 % of the nation’s power, coal 30 % . This gap will only widen as more coal-fired plants are converted to burn natural gas, which is cheaper and cleaner. Facilities that still burn coal are rapidly aging into obscurity, with a vast majority of them (88 % ) built between 1950 and 1990.
Coal is also facing steep competition from renewables. For the first time in March, wind and solar made up 10 % of total U.S. electricity generation, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). Windfarms in Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa and other states provided 8 % , while commercial and residential solar installations represented about 2 % .