Duncan Slade, PolitiFact.com | Austin American-Statesman
Senator Joe Manchin: The United States had 589 coal-fired plants 10 years ago, and “we’re down to 504. … We are the only nation that has reduced our reliance (on) coal energy.”
PolitiFact’s ruling: Half True
Here’s why: As the U.S. and global economies recover from the strains of the coronavirus pandemic, the demand for energy has outstripped supply, sending energy prices higher.
With energy prices expected to remain high in the near future, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., called a meeting of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, which he chairs, to hear testimony from experts on energy trends.
During a discussion of carbon capture technologies — ways to capture, transport and bury atmospheric carbon dioxide deep underground — Manchin cited several statistics about the trend lines during the past decade for coal-fired power plants.
Manchin said that China, India, and other major nations have increased the number of coal-fired power plants, while the U.S. has decreased its number.
“The United States had 589 (coal-fired plants) 10 years ago,” Manchin said during the Nov. 16 hearing. “We’re down to 504. … We are the only nation that has reduced our reliance as far as in coal energy.”
We decided to check Manchin’s math.
How many coal-fired plants are there in the U.S.?
Manchin’s deputy press secretary, Jeremy Ortiz, told PolitiFact West Virginia that the senator was referring to coal plant data from the Global Energy Monitor, a nonprofit group that tracks energy data. The group’s Global Coal Plant Tracker collects data on all coal-fired power plants that generate at least 30 megawatts of power.
Manchin’s figure for current coal-fired plants — 504 — is close to one of the figures in the Global Coal Plant Tracker database. However, Manchin used the wrong terminology to describe this number.
Data from the tracker show that there are 498 coal-fired units in the U.S., and that’s not far from 504.
But notice what is being counted: units, rather than “plants,” which is the word Manchin used. The tracker’s database counts a much smaller number of coal-fired plants in the US. — 246.
So what’s the difference?
“Units often consist of a boiler and turbine, and several units may make up one coal-fired power station,” said Flora Champenois, a coal research analyst with the Global Energy Monitor. “Interchanging the terms for plants and units is inaccurate.” For example, she said, the Clifty Creek station in Indiana is one power plant, but it operates six units.
Has the U.S. been closing coal-fired power plants over the past decade?
U.S. coal capacity did peak a decade ago at around 340 gigawatts and has declined to 232 gigawatts today, Champenois said. Low-carbon alternatives have increasingly become competitive with coal on price, and the shift away from coal has been reinforced by increased attention among utilities, governments and the public to carbon emissions’ role in driving climate change.
Champenois added that while the U.S. has been retiring coal-fired plants at a “record pace,” it is not on track to meet the goals set by the Paris Agreement, the global climate accord that the U.S. rejoined earlier this year.
Have other countries reduced their reliance on coal?
Champenois said that the U.S has retired more capacity, measured in gigawatts, than any other country since 2000, which supports Manchin’s assertion that no other country has reduced its reliance on coal for energy as much as the U.S. has.
But many other countries have been cutting back, too.
China has retired a lot more coal-fired units than the U.S. has, and many of the European Union’s 27 countries have retired a much larger percentage of their existing capacity, Champenois said.
The EU has reduced coal consumption by half since 2015, Sean O’Leary, senior researcher at the Ohio River Valley Institute, told PolitiFact West Virginia
That said, measuring the impact of these reductions in countries like China and India is tricky.
Despite the pace of coal-fired retirements, China, India and the rest of the world have also added coal-fired power units, plants and capacity during the past decade, producing net increases in all three metrics. By contrast, the U.S. has seen decreases in all three.
China has been adding non-coal assets at a faster pace than it’s adding coal-fired assets, meaning that coal’s share of its energy portfolio has been declining.
“Although China is increasing generation from coal, coal’s share of Chinese generation has been declining since 2010, and China has announced its intention to reduce coal-fired generation starting in 2026,” O’Leary said.
Despite the complexities of measuring the global changes in coal use, O’Leary said that Manchin overstated how unusual the United States’ transition away from coal has been.
“The notion Manchin tried to convey, that the U.S. is alone in cutting reliance on coal while the rest of the world bounds ahead, is just plain wrong,” O’Leary said.
Manchin said the U.S. had 589 coal-fired plants 10 years ago, and “we’re down to 504. … We are the only nation that has reduced our reliance as far as in coal energy.”
Manchin is broadly right to note that the U.S. has decreased its reliance on coal for generating electricity over the past decade, although he incorrectly labeled the units of measurement that went along with his figures.
He also has a point that the U.S. has led the world in the number of retirements of coal-fired assets, but it’s worth noting that the U.S. is not alone, as other countries have also made significant cuts in coal-fired power over the same period.
We rate the statement Half True.
- Joe Manchin, remarks at a Senate Energy Committee hearing, Nov. 16, 2021
- Global Coal Plant Tracker data compiled for PolitiFact West Virginia
- Global Energy Monitor, “US Coal Retirement Rate Needs to Increase by 66% to Keep 1.5°C Within Reach,” November 2021
- Penn State University, Current and Future Energy Sources of the USA, accessed Dec. 11, 2021
- Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook, Dec. 7, 2021
- Global Energy Monitor, Clifty Creek Station, accessed Dec. 11, 2021
- Reuters, “President Xi says China will start cutting coal consumption from 2026,” April 22, 2021
- Global Electricity Dashboard, Share of electricity production by fuel: China, accessed Dec. 11, 2021
- Statista, Coal-fired electricity generation worldwide from 1985 to 2020
- PolitiFact West Virginia, “Are 1,600 new coal-fired power plants being constructed today?” Sept. 20, 2019
- Email interview with Flora Champenois, coal research analyst at Global Energy Monitor, Dec. 9, 2021
- Email interview with Sean O’Leary, senior researcher at the Ohio River Valley Institute, Dec. 9, 2021