Out with the old, in with the new: Establishing timelines for fossil retirement for a just transition


Out with the old, in with the new: Establishing timelines for fossil retirement for a just transition

President Biden’s plan to decarbonize the electricity sector requires shuttering the fossil fuel generators that currently provide more than 60 percent of U.S. electricity. New research shows which plants will become stranded assets under this plan, a critical step in managing a just transition for fossil fuel communities.

Grubert, E., 2020. “Fossil electricity retirement deadlines for a just transition.” Science, 340, 6521.

Among the raft of executive orders Joe Biden signed within the first few weeks of his Presidency was a short statement with big implications: the aim to achieve a carbon pollution-free electricity sector by 2035. This goal won praise from environmental advocates who see electricity sector decarbonization as key to unlocking climate change mitigation in the United States. It has been commended as an opportunity to boost economic growth through a vast build out of new renewable energy generation capacity and storage infrastructure. However, these dominant narratives about Biden’s plan conceal that decarbonizing the electricity sector requires closing down existing fossil fuel generators. This could be detrimental for the communities and workers that have relied on fossil fuel power plants for employment and revenue for decades. To ensure a just energy transition for all, these fossil fuel workers and communities must be supported in planning for the looming changes in their economies.  

A critical step in advancing a just transition is to determine how many plant closures will happen and which plants will need to close early in their lifecycles, making these plants ‘stranded assets’. This scoping task is the premise of a recent Science article by Dr. Emily Grubert from Georgia Tech, that explores the implications of a 2035 decarbonization deadline for all 10,435 U.S. fossil fuel generators in operation as of 2018. Using a model based on historical age at retirement for comparable fossil fuel generators, Dr. Grubert finds that just over 7,600 U.S. generators will have already reached the end of their typical life span by 2035. The remaining 27 percent of generators would need to close before reaching the average retirement age, which amounts to losing around 15 percent of these generators’ lifetime capacity.  

Beneath these high-level findings, Dr. Grubert’s analysis reveals the potential future of each U.S. generator under a 2035 deadline for fossil fuel generator closures. This kind of generator-specific information that can stem from explicit national deadlines is essential at the local level. If communities and workers have certainty about when their generator will close, they have greater capacity for long-term planning. Participatory processes can be used to consider local strengths and needs and to shape a shared vision of a future without fossil fuel generation. This vision can then be realized through skills training programs, environmental remediation, or budgeting that accounts for tax revenue losses. As Dr. Grubert argues, if such local level action is combined with universal social programs like affordable housing and a $15 minimum wage, the ripple effects of plant closures in the U.S. economy will be minimized.  

President Biden has made clear that he wants justice at the heart of climate change action under his administration, including in his goal for electricity sector decarbonization by 2035. To achieve this, it is essential that fossil fuel communities and workers be given transparent information and opportunity to adapt to a zero-carbon future. This recent Science article shows that the Biden administration needs to set explicit generator closure deadlines to provide the clarity necessary for local actors to shape their transition. Throughout the transition, the administration needs to complement locally-driven action with national social and economic programs. Dr. Grubert’s work underscores the urgent need for lasting legislation to pave the way for an energy transition that will generate new opportunities for fossil fuel communities and workers.