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GE is getting out of the coal power business

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Posted at 7:27 AM, Sep 21, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-21 09:27:03-04

General Electric, one of the world's largest makers of coal-fired power plants, plans to say goodbye to coal as it focuses instead on cleaner alternatives.

Struggling GE announced Monday it plans to exit the new build coal power market -- meaning it won't build new coal-fired power plants -- making it the latest major company to dump coal. GE said the exit may include asset sales, site closures and layoffs.

The move marks a dramatic reversal for GE. Just five years ago, the company doubled down on coal by acquiring Alstom's power business, which makes coal-fueled turbines.

That $9.5 billion deal, GE's biggest-ever industrial purchase, proved to be a disaster because coal has been crushed by the rise of natural gas and a shift toward solar, wind and renewable energy. Since then, GE has laid off thousands of power workers, slashed its dividend to a penny, fired two CEOs and sharply written down the value of its power business.

"With the continued transformation of GE, we are focused on power generation businesses that have attractive economics and a growth trajectory," GE Power CEO Russell Stokes said in a statement.

The decision marks the latest major shift by GE, which in recent years has reached deals to sell its century-old locomotive division, reversexe its takeover of oil-and-gas giant Baker Hughes, sell a major healthcare unit and even dump its iconic light-bulb business.

But GE is not completely cutting ties with coal -- at least not yet. The company will continue to service existing coal power plants as well as build turbines for nuclear power plants.

Still, the move marks a shift away from dirtier fuels, leaving GE to focus on natural gas as well as solar and wind. GE has made a big bet on offshore wind, illustrated by the creation of Haliade-X, the world's largest and most powerful offshore wind turbine.

That makes sense because despite President Donald Trump's campaign promise to revive coal, the industry continues to lose ground, especially in the United States.

In a major milestone, the United States consumed more energy in 2019 from renewable sources than from coal for the first time since before 1885. US coal consumption has declined for six straight years to levels unseen since 1964.

Although emerging markets like India still rely on new coal power plants to fuel their rapid growth, the climate crisis and plunging solar and wind costs have renewed pressure on utilities to turn to renewables instead.

GE Steam Power is the world's largest steam and coal power franchise, with 30% of the world's steam turbine capacity, according to its website.