In brief

In brief

  • The US coal market is declining, with the market capitalization of the top four US coal producers down by around 80% from 2011 to 2018.
  • Market, regulatory, and investor forces have prompted an acceleration in coal generation plant retirements, with closures quadrupling since 2011.
  • Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland Interconnection's large coal (>500 MW) operating capacity expected to fall by up to 50% by the end of 2035.
  • Coal operators can achieve big savings by adopting a "run to retire" strategy, while also transitioning to a renewable generation portfolio.

The US coal industry is facing declining growth. Raw material prices and electric power demand for coal have experienced single-digit compound annual growth rate (CAGR) declines, proposed new coal generation capacity has evaporated, and the total market capitalization of the top four US coal producers has diminished by close to 80% from 2011 to 20181. Unprecedented uncertainty has accelerated the pace of coal generation retirement, quadrupling annual closures over that same timeframe.

The coal industry is experiencing declining growth

Coal generation plant retirements are accelerating

Cost pressure is mounting

Under mounting cost pressure, plant operators need to better understand and quantify three categories of risk—market, regulatory, and investor—each of which has the potential to push coal “out of the money” and drastically accelerate the pace of closure. Variables influencing this are:

  • Deflated power market pricing resulting from an influx of cheap gas, rapid buildout of renewables with low-to-no marginal cost, plus dampened electricity demand.
  • New hurdles driven by stringent emission controls, state renewable policies, and changing power market rules (e.g., potential repeal of FERC’s Minimum Offer Price Rule)
  • Less attractive financing options given emerging focus on environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors, and a renewed willingness to securitize debt in order to accelerate closure (e.g., ratepayer-backed, anticipated renewable portfolio revenues).

Our analysis

Our analysis suggests power market pricing heavily influences operator decisions to expedite plant shutdowns—starting with the least efficient units as defined by O&M cost and heat rate. We found that from the time of announcement to approximately 5 years prior to closure, retiring baseload coal plants’ median O&M cost per MWh is 25% higher than that of the operating fleet2.

Examining market risk in isolation, up to 50% of PJM large coal (>500 MW) capacity is expected to retire by the end of 2035 if market capacity prices follow the same linear trajectory as 2018-2022 auction prices3. A 25% step reduction of the forecasted capacity price curve, however, could lead to a near doubling of closures.

Power market prices will have a significant impact on the pace of coal plant closure

Up to 50% of PJM capacity is expected to retire by 2035 EOY if capacity prices follow a linear trajectory

Operators should recognize the long 8-10 year planning cycle and adopt a meaningful “run to retire” strategy—one that unlocks incremental value by optimizing the organization and supply chain, managing assets for recovery, and honing planned capital expenditures, while retraining and transitioning the workforce.

Cost savings delivered

Experience tells us operators can achieve meaningful cost savings (potentially in the millions of dollars) in three cost categories:

  • >25% in annual non-fuel O&M
  • >5% in fuel O&M
  • 40-50% of typical maintenance capital expenditure

Adopt a "run to retire" strategy

To achieve these incremental savings, coal operators should adopt a "run to retire" strategy, ideally 8-10 years before closure, that:

  • Evaluates, and ultimately secures, asset transition and financing options over the planned shutdown period.
  • Establishes a short- and long-term roadmap that defines the implementation strategies for budget/investments, organizational change, asset management risks, workforce transition plans, supply chain, and third-party contract modification. It sets out an end state vision for the property and reduces shared service costs.
  • Includes a phased stakeholder change management and communications plan, for internal as well as external audiences.
  • Develops an internal governance committee of executives and experts, how often they will meet, and how they will make decisions, including assessing (and correcting) the plan as needed.

Market, regulatory, and investor forces are squeezing coal generation profitability. And units with the highest operating costs are most at risk of being pushed "out of the money." Operators have a unique opportunity to unlock incremental value by adopting a "run to retire" plan that focuses on optimizing the organization, workforce, assets, and planned capital projects, while at the same time transitioning to a renewable generation portfolio.


1 S&P Market Intelligence (2011 Market Capitalization – BTU, CNX, WLTGQ, ANRZQ; 2018 Market Capitalization – BTU, ARLP, ARCH, CEIX)

2 Accenture Analysis of 596 coal baseload and large units, of which 110 retired between 2015-2019

3 PJM Resource Clearing Price Auction (CP, BRA, RTO Prices)

About the Authors

Andre Begosso

Managing Director – Global Utilities Growth & Strategy Lead

Fred Vitale

Director – Accenture Strategy

Omar Saadeh

Senior Manager – Accenture Strategy

Josh Constanti

Consultant – Accenture Strategy


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