Newsletter: Cash for clunkers, coal edition

Big banks are looking to profit from coal plant retirements.
By Julian Spector

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Smoke plumes arise from three tall striped coal stacks at a power plant
(Valeriy Kryukov/Unsplash)

Shutting down coal power plants is one of the most crucial tasks in the fight against climate change, and the financial industry is taking it more seriously than ever.

Profit motives arguably should play more of a role in coal plant operations93 percent of coal plants worldwide are protected from market competition, allowing them to hang on longer than economics or climate science would dictate.

Now a number of major banks are creating funds dedicated to buying up coal assets and phasing them out over time in an industrial-scale managed retreat. Governments are dedicating public funds to the effort in hopes of creating new economic opportunities as the coal jobs fade away.

The question now is how to ensure those funds get spent to maximize public good, not just to funnel public dollars into private hands. Today on Canary Media, Justin Guay, who tracks this issue at the nonprofit Sunrise Project, makes the case for how to do coal closures right.

There’s good reason to be uneasy about the frothy reception coal buyout funds are getting from some of the biggest banks and fund managers in the world. These private-sector moguls are motivated to make money while many of the rest of us prioritize solving climate change. Clearly, those motivations don’t always align.

Justin argues for safeguards such as:

  • Use market-based measures like reverse auctions to value the coal assets. The goal is to avoid letting private entities inflate the book value of soon-to-be-closed coal plants so they don’t claim more public investment than they deserve.
  • Create safeguards so utilities and companies that made bad bets on coal can’t hold the public hostage to get big bailouts.
  • The retirement deadlines for these funds should be pegged to scientific analysis of when coal needs to be phased out. But funds should aim to accelerate the timeline wherever possible and include interim deadlines to measure progress.
  • Replace coal with clean energy. You can structure the funds so that shutting down uneconomic coal generates savings, which get invested in repurposing those sites for new energy projects. The goal there is to support the coal community through the transition, and to avoid replacing lost generation with other fossil fuels.

Expect to see more coverage of this trend as it picks up. Complicated grid dynamics, conflicting profit motives and high climate stakes make for a compelling subject for journalistic scrutiny.

And if you prefer listening to your clean energy news…

Check out our new podcast offering! Canary Media has partnered with Political Climate, an excellent podcast that takes you inside the climate policy discussions unfolding in Washington.

In years past, the climate policy unfolding in Washington” had to be rather forward-looking —tangible developments were hard to come by. Now there are literally trillions of dollars on the line, and decisions made in the next few weeks will dictate how much of that gets directed to remake the American energy system.

The first episode of the new season is here. Subscribe on your favorite podcast app to catch new episodes in the coming weeks.

Julian Spector is a senior reporter at Canary Media. He reports on batteries, long-duration energy storage, low-carbon hydrogen and clean energy breakthroughs around the world.