As coal plants shutter across the state, wind capacity could exceed coal in Texas in a few years, according to a new report from the Energy Institute at the University of Texas – Austin.

Joshua Rhodes, research fellow at the Energy Institute, says he believes that will be the case with Luminant announcing a total of three coal plants that will stop operating next year and more wind capacity that’s expected to come online. The Monticello Power Plant in Titus County will be taken offline in early 2018, along with the Sandow Power Plant in Milam County and Big Brown Power Plant in Freestone County.

“If we don’t have the coal generators, we’ll have to make that up somewhere else,” Rhodes said. “Some of that can be made up by renewable energy and some of that can be made up by natural gas.”

In a press release, Curt Morgan, Vistra Energy’s president and chief executive officer, explained the “long-term economic viability of these plants has been in question for some time.” The plants are part of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) market, which manages electrical power for a majority of the state. Luminant said with more renewable energy in the market and cheaper natural gas prices, their plants have struggled to remain economically competitive. 

Rhodes believes coal plants could still be retiring even with a good market. “If you’re looking at the plants that are about to retire, most of them are really old,” Rhodes said. “They were built in the 70s, so they need some capital upgrades to likely keep going.”

According to ERCOT, 351 billion kilowatt-hours of energy were used in 2016, which is 1.1 percent more than 2015. Nearly half of that came from natural gas, with coal making up 30 percent and wind amounting to 15 percent. If everything were running at 100 percent capacity, in 2016, production capacity shows half of that would be from natural gas. Coal’s generation capacity was 22 percent, while 20 percent was from wind.

With the coal plant closures, numbers from ERCOT and Luminant show coal capacity will drop from 19,798 to 15,968 megawatts in 2018. It’s expected with additional wind resources that may be built in the ERCOT region, wind capacity could potentially be at 21,170 megawatts.

Raina Hornaday, vice president of the Texas Renewable Energy Industries Alliance (TREIA), said wind is steadily being developed across the state, but natural gas is still a key energy supply.

“It’s also the most competitive option and it’s an abundant resource in Texas,” she said. “For the foreseeable future, natural gas is going to be the leader for our electricity generation in Texas.”

She said several factors contribute to the wind power industry’s success in Texas, such as the size of the state and the availability to build transmission lines quickly. With renewable energy growth in wind and solar, Hornaday says people and companies will have more options to choose from and what they seek is the financial component.

“It’s easier for them to budget long term if they know what their power prices are going to be because that’s one of their biggest costs in a lot of cases with large buildings, shopping centers or data centers,” she said.

More development projects will also mean new jobs, Hornaday said.

“Anywhere from steelworkers to engineers, to secretarial type jobs are needed when these power plants are built,” she said.