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With Fossil Plants Running Out of Time, U.S. Grid Decarbonization May Cost Less than Expected

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With nearly three-quarters of the country’s fossil-fuelled power plants reaching the end of their operating life by 2035, it will probably cost the United States less than expected to decarbonize its grid over that time span, according to a new analysis published earlier this month in the journal Science.

The calculations by Georgia Tech civil engineer Emily Grubert “show that only about 15% of capacity-years would remain for power plants powered by fossil fuels,” Energy News Network reports. “In other words, if you added up all the years of capacity left for all fossil fuel power plants running in 2018, less than one-sixth of the total years would remain.”

“What this work shows is that it’s probably not going to be a massive problem” to take the remaining fossil plants out of service, Grubert told ENN. “Basically, the plants are already pretty old, and this gives us a huge leg up in trying to retire carbon-based infrastructure.”

The narrowing time span reduces the economic risk for utilities and state governments that plant operators will look for compensation for stranded assets. That discussion is triggered when “somebody builds something in good faith and then policy or some other occurrence forces it to shut down much, much earlier than expected,” explained Grubert, who specializes in infrastructure engineering and sustainable communities. But “there’s a lot of arguments that maybe the newer fossil fuel assets should never be considered stranded assets, because it’s been fairly clear that there’s going to be climate action at some point.”

ENN identifies Ohio, Texas, Colorado, California, and states along the country’s mid-Atlantic seaboard as jurisdictions with significant number of fossil plants with lifespans beyond 2035 or 2040, many of them in economically fragile communities.

“In Grubert’s view, long-range policy planning should begin now to support people who will eventually lose their jobs, as well as communities that may have relied on revenues from fossil fuel power plants,” ENN writes. “At the same time, other people and other businesses are also affected by climate change impacts, she noted. They include communities affected by sea level rise, shifts in extreme weather, disproportionate health impacts, and so on.”

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