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Operating coal-fired power plants more expensive than switching to renewables – report

West Burton coal-fired power station in the United Kingdom. (Image by Richard Croft, Wikimedia Commons).

Generating electricity from solar power is cheaper than doing so through coal-fired power plants, a new article published in the journal Energy and Environmental Materials states.

According to Ravi Silva, Director of the Advanced Technology Institute at the University of Surrey and author of the paper, solar energy typically has a cost comparative with or lower than other energy sources, including coal, nuclear and offshore wind, even as far north as Britain. In sunnier countries like Spain, the economic case for solar is even stronger.

To back these assertions, Silva cites data from the International Renewable Energy Agency, which estimates that 61% of coal capacity in the United States costs more to operate than building new renewable energy plants. Retiring these coal plants and replacing them with renewables would save $5.6 billion in costs and 332 million tons of CO2 per year.

IRENA’s figures also show that in India, 70% of coal capacity is more expensive to run than building new renewables, while in Germany it is 100%.

The researcher, however, points out that not everything should be replaced by solar, acknowledging that it is important to balance solar energy with other energy sources to ensure consistency of supply to meet demand, both on day-to-day and seasonal levels. He directs people planning future energy supplies to consider wind, nuclear, and storage solutions like pumped hydro, hydrogen and batteries.

“COP26 was big news last year but it’s meaningless unless we maintain momentum and deliver on our carbon reduction targets. Solar is a crucial part of the solution and one which is more cost-effective than people believe,” Silva said.

“Retiring all the uneconomic coal plants around the world and replacing them with renewables would save $32 billion and 3 gigatons of CO2 annually, 9% of mankind’s energy-related emissions. Is not this a worthwhile legacy for COP26?”