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The five factors that determine when coal power stations close

With the closure of Australia’s dirtiest coal power station recently brought forward to 2028, now seems a good time to publish a post I began writing late last year but never finished, which analyses five of the most important factors that influence when coal power stations close.

A quick overview of Australia’s coal fleet

There are 19 operational coal power stations in Australia located across four states: eight in Queensland (Gladstone, Tarong, Tarong North, Millmerran, Kogan Creek, Stanwell, Callide B, Callide C), five in New South Wales (Liddell, Eraring, Vales Point, Bayswater, Mt Piper) and three each in Victoria (Yallourn, Loy Yang A, Loy Yang B) and Western Australia (Muja CD, Collie, Bluewaters). In the three eastern states, they supply between 70 and 80% of each state’s electricity. In Western Australia they supply about 40% of the power in the state’s main electricity grid.

They range in size from the 340MW Collie power station to the gigantic 2,880MW Eraring power station. In age they range from 12-year-old Bluewaters to 50-year-old Liddell.

Don’t we already know when coal power stations will close?

In theory, yes. The Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) requires all power station owners on the east coast to publish their planned closure dates here. The owners must provide at least five years notice of any closure, and risk penalties if they don’t. If we take this at face value, just four coal power stations are expected to close by 2030: Liddell and Vales Point in NSW, Yallourn in Victoria and Callide B in Queensland.

But it would be unwise to take this at face value. If a company is bleeding money on a coal power station and they see no hope of things changing, they are not going to let themselves go bankrupt – they’ll close it down. Even substantial fines are unlikely to deter this. Coal power stations can cost hundreds of millions of dollars every year to maintain and keep safe as they get older. I expect most companies would rather pay a substantial fine to shut a power station early than pump more money into assets that are unprofitable.

So take the official closure dates with a grain of salt. Instead, consider the following five factors.

Age

Age is the most obvious factor influencing coal closure. As coal power stations age, they become increasingly expensive to maintain and increasingly prone to faults as machinery reaches the end of its technical life. Australia’s coal power stations are generally pretty old. Just five have been built since the year 2000 and the four oldest were built back in the 1970s (Liddell, Yallourn, Vales Point, Gladstone). Age also has an impact on the following factor: flexibility.

Flexibility

Coal power stations are often described as providing ‘baseload’ power. This means they are designed to operate at close to full capacity 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. That makes them poorly fitted to the modern electricity grid, with wind and solar providing a varying supply of electricity at different times of the day, forcing other power stations to also vary their supply in response. Electricity demand is also becoming increasingly varied over the course of the day, with demand falling significantly in the middle of the day and then quickly rising in the evenings.

It is true to say coal power stations are not designed to ramp their supply up and down but this doesn’t mean they cannot. All coal power stations have to ramp to some extent these days. But it takes its toll on the machinery. Generally speaking, the older the power station, the more difficult it is to ramp up and down, the higher the maintenance costs and the more likely the faults.

For example, the near-50 year old Yallourn power station in Victoria has real difficulties ramping up and down, so it avoids doing this as much as possible. In contrast, the Mt Piper power station in NSW, which was built in the 1990s and is a lot younger than Yallourn (although it is still almost 30 years old) is much more versatile and often ramps and down.

The more flexible a power station, the better its chances of hanging on into the future.

Cost competitiveness and electricity prices

Part of the reason coal power stations provide so much of Australia’s electricity is that they are relatively cheap to run – before wind and solar came along, coal power stations were the cheapest source of electricity in Australia, providing power at a far lower cost than gas and hydro.

But that is no longer the case. Wind and solar can provide power with virtually no running costs. As more and more wind and solar farms have been built across the country, the wholesale price of electricity has fallen and the most expensive coal power stations have been put under a lot of financial pressure.

According to an excellent recent analysis from IEEFA, the cost of running Australia’s coal power stations (know as the short run marginal cost) varies from $12/MWh to $42/MWh (unfortunately this analysis didn’t include WA). The three cheapest coal power stations are all in Victoria (Loy Yang A, Loy Yang B, Yallourn). The three most expensive power stations are all in NSW (Eraring, Mt Piper, Vales Point).

Cost competitiveness is not just important on a national level; within-state competitiveness is crucially important. For example, the Yallourn power station is the third cheapest coal power station on the east coast, but it is the most expensive in Victoria, so it loses out to its most direct competitors Loy Yang A and Loy Yang B.  Conversely, the Vales Point power station is the third most expensive on the east coast but two other power stations in NSW, Eraring and Mt Piper, are more expensive than it is. So Vales Point is less at risk than they are.

Why is NSW home to the most expensive coal power stations and Victoria to the cheapest? The biggest factor determining running costs is the cost of coal supply. All of Victoria’s coal power stations (and about half of Queensland’s) get coal from mines co-located with the power station and owned by the same company. All of NSW’s coal power stations (and half of Queensland’s) must get their coal from other companies who own coal mines.

The price of coal from these coal mines is heavily influenced by the international market price. If the seaborne coal price goes up, then so does the price of coal for domestic coal power stations. (This does not apply to Victoria because we are not connected to the international market – our coal is so dirty and has such a low energy content, no one would pay to import it). 

Owner incentives

Coal power stations have a range of different owners with varying incentives when it comes to closures.

Most of Queensland’s and WA’s coal power stations are owned by their respective state government. This insulates them to an extent from profitability concerns. WA’s coal power stations in particular are very unprofitable – if they were to be privatised, I would expect a significant amount of capacity to close very quickly.

Private companies also have different incentives. The Vales Point power station is the primary income stream for Delta Electricity – closing it would kill off much of their profit. But equally, if Vales Point becomes unprofitable, Delta is far more likely to suddenly close it than one of the big energy companies because they cannot absorb the losses. For the big gentailers, AGL, EnergyAustralia and Origin, who between them own six of the eight coal power stations in Victoria and NSW, their coal power stations are just one income stream of many (albeit a large one). 

There are also a couple of niche cases. The Gladstone coal power station, the oldest and largest in Queensland, is owned by Rio Tinto and primarily exists to supply power to Rio’s Boyne Island aluminium smelter.  The wholesale price of electricity is therefore not very important. As long as the smelter remains open, Gladstone is also likely to remain open as long as it physically can. And the reverse is true: the closure of Boyne Island will almost certainly lead to Gladstone’s closure.

Supply-demand dynamics

There are also varying supply-demand dynamics in the different states. Over the last decade, there has been a rapid increase in renewable energy generation in most states. This has been accompanied by a fall in electricity demand in NSW and Victoria. This has placed a lot of pressure on the coal power stations in both states and lead to a number of closures, with renewables outcompeting coal and eating into its market share.

In contrast, Queensland and Western Australia have seen growing demand for electricity over the last decade. This has meant that even though renewables have been growing in both states, coal power stations have not lost much of their market share. This is particularly the case in Queensland, which has seen only a very small reduction in coal capacity to date.

So, which power stations are in the firing line?

Weighing up all these factors, a few power stations stand out as being particularly vulnerable.

Victoria: Yallourn is clearly the most vulnerable. It is the most expensive in the state, the oldest and most polluting and will increasingly be unable to compete with the flood of new renewables. Owners EnergyAustralia recently announced that they would bring forward the closure date from 2032 to 2028 but that still seems wildly optimistic. I expect units at Yallourn to begin dropping off within the next four to five years, and I definitely wouldn’t rule out a full closure by 2025/26.

New South Wales: We already know that the Liddell coal power station will begin closing in April next year and fully close by April 2023. This will leave four coal power stations left standing in the state. The owners of these four power stations will likely wait to see if electricity prices go up again in the wake of Liddell’s closure before announcing any closures. If prices don’t rise or if any rise is short-lived, expect another coal closure announcement in 2024.

Eraring is clearly the most vulnerable – it is the most expensive coal power station on the east coast and Origin already seems to be managing expectations for an early closure. Eraring is so gigantic that you shouldn’t expect the whole thing to close at once – Origin will likely close one unit at a time. But depending on exactly how much pressure Eraring is under, I wouldn’t be surprised if an announcement for a partial closure is made even before Liddell closes – perhaps even within the next 12 months.

Vales Point is a bit of wild card – it is marginally cheaper to run than Eraring but a bit older. And its owners (Delta) are less able to absorb big losses. If things get bad at Vales Point and Origin hold out on an early closure announcement for Eraring, don’t be surprised if Vales Point goes very suddenly.

Mt Piper is the country’s second most expensive coal power station, but it is the youngest and most flexible in NSW. Expect the owners (EnergyAustralia) to endure the current low prices in the hope that Eraring or Vales Point close first, especially as they are likely to have their hands full with an early Yallourn closure in Victoria.

Queensland: I continue to think an early coal closure in Queensland is underrated. The state has seen a surge in solar generation in the middle of the day that is continuing to grow and the state’s coal fleet simply cannot continue to absorb it. With six coal power stations owned by the Queensland Government, expect them to announce the mothballing or closure of at least one in the next couple of years. Perhaps Callide B or a unit at Tarong/Tarong North? Gladstone also looms as a wild card: if Rio Tinto shuts the Boyne Island smelter or enacts a plan to transition it to a clean supply of electricity, Gladstone will likely close.

Western Australia: The WA Government has announced the closure of the two ‘C’ units of the Muja CD power station by 2024. It would not be surprising if this were to be brought forward and a closure date also announced for the two ‘D’ units in the next couple of years. Muja CD is the state’s oldest coal power station by a long distance and, like in Queensland, it is struggling to absorb the rapid growth in rooftop solar in the middle of the day. 

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Coal in Australia, Part 3: New South Wales

This post concludes a series I began back in this blog’s early days looking at coal production in Australia. The first two posts looked at Western Australia and Victoria and Queensland. Today we turn to New South Wales.

Firstly, an explanation for the delay in profiling NSW. There is a frustrating lack of official, publicly available information on coal production in New South Wales. The state government does provide quarterly reports on coal industry statistics but you must pay $506 to read them! This is a disgrace, clearly intended to limit access, avoid scrutiny and make money. It stands in stark contrast to the Queensland Government, which provides a wealth of data on the state’s coal industry for free.

I have spent much time trying to find another comprehensive and publicly available data source but to no avail. That means that this post will be less comprehensive than my posts for other states and rely on a wider range of sources, some of which are quite out of date. 

Coal in New South Wales

New South Wales has 38 operating coal mines. Unlike Queensland, which has two distinct coal regions in the south and centre, New South Wales’ coal mines are geographically concentrated in eastern New South Wales. Many of these coal mines are located relatively close to Sydney, in contrast to Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia, where coal mines are located fairly long distances from the capitals.

New South Wales’ coal mines can be divided into roughly two regions, one to the north of Sydney and one to the south. (I have been unable to find an especially good map of NSW coal mines but the least bad one I have found is from the New South Wales Minerals Council).

The large Northern region, which includes the Hunter Valley, the Western Coalfield and the Gunnedah Basin, begins in Narrabri in the north-western corner, running directly south down to Lithgow then east to Lake Macquarie before heading north along the coast to Newcastle. From there it continues up the coast towards Port Macquarie before heading back inland towards Narrabri. This region includes 34 of the state’s operating coal mines and produces around 95% of the state’s coal. Most of the coal in this region is exported via the Port of Newcastle.

All five of the state’s coal power stations are located in this region. The Bayswater* and Liddell power stations (owned by AGL) are located right next to each other near Muswellbrook in the Upper Hunter. The Eraring power station (owned by Origin) and Vales Point power station (owned by Delta) are located near Lake Macquarie south of Newcastle. The Mt Piper power station (owned by EnergyAustralia) is located on the western edge of this region near Lithgow.

The Southern region, which includes the Southern Coalfield, begins south of Sydney running along the coast to Wollongong before heading inland to Moss Vale then north-east to Campbelltown. This region is far smaller than the Northern region, including just four coal mines and producing 5% of the state’s coal. Most of the coal in this region is exported via Port Kembla near Wollongong.

New South Wales is the most coal-reliant state in Australia, with the most coal power station capacity generating 79% of the state’s electricity in 2020. The ageing Liddell power station is scheduled to close in 2023, which should lead to a drop in coal generation.

There are a handful of new proposed coal mines in the state, although a number of these projects are having difficulty getting developed and they are located in existing coal basins. Unlike Queensland, where there are still plans for massive coal expansion, New South Wales coal production has probably peaked. 

Like Queensland, New South Wales is a massive coal exporter and exports about 85% of its coal. But its export market is significantly more concentrated than Queensland’s. 87% of New South Wales’ coal exports go to just four countries: Japan (39%), China (22%), South Korea (13%) and Taiwan (13%). This highlights just how much the future of the state’s coal industry is dependent on the energy policies of just four countries.

Another crucial difference between New South Wales and Queensland is the type of coal exported. In Queensland, 72% of exported coal is metallurgical coal, which is used in steel-making. Metallurgical coal will likely take longer to phase out than thermal coal (used to make electricity). 

The opposite is true for New South Wales: 85% of the state’s coal exports are thermal coal and just 15% metallurgical coal (as of 2015-16). This means New South Wales is going to experience the brunt of the energy transition much earlier than Queensland, with the state’s major coal markets currently drawing up plans to phase out coal power stations and by extension, thermal coal imports. New South Wales needs a plan to manage the decline in thermal coal exports or the state’s economy and mining regions will be hit very hard over the next decade.

There is no one-stop shop for information on the New South Wales coal industry but the best places to start are Coal Services Statistics and Coal in NSW Industry Sectors (note that the data in this source is from 2015-16).

*I took a photo of the Bayswater power station from the top of the Liddell power station, which you can see on the homepage of this website.

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US election recap: what happened and what it means for 2024

After an extended post-lockdown hiatus, the ICENERVESHATTER blog is back for 2021 with a new post every few weeks.

With Joe Biden’s inauguration a few days away and the Georgia Senate elections wrapped up, it is time to look back at the results of the United States presidential election and identify some key trends to help understand the future of the American electoral map. This long read will (probably) mark the end of this blog’s focus on United States politics for the foreseeable future, as I move on to other topics.

A quick recap

Joe Biden won the electoral college, with 306 votes to Donald Trump’s 232 – the exact reverse of the 2016 result. Biden won five states that Hillary Clinton couldn’t (Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Arizona and Georgia), as well as one of Nebraska’s electoral votes (see this post for an explanation of the quirks of the US electoral system).

Biden won the popular vote by 4.4%, with 51.3% of total votes cast. That is the second largest winning margin since 1996 and the second largest primary vote percentage since 1988 (both beaten only by Obama’s 2008 victory).

Turnout was very high by American standards: 159 million people voted, equivalent to 67% of the voting-eligible population. That’s the highest percentage in over 100 years.

Democrats also kept control of the House of Representatives (albeit with a reduced majority) and won control of the Senate by the barest of margins.

What does this result reveal about the changing electoral map? Let’s go through some of the key lessons and lingering questions.

Virginia, Colorado and New Mexico are out of reach for Republicans

All three of these states used to be swing states and were won by George W Bush as recently as 2004. But since then, all three have drifted to the Democrats. It was an open question after 2016 as to whether these states could still be called swing states. The 2020 results seem to confirm that they are not: Biden won Virginia by 10.1%, New Mexico by 10.8% and Colorado by 13.5%. Maine is also increasingly uncompetitive with Biden winning statewide by 9.1% (although Trump won one of the two district electoral votes).

Ohio and Iowa look increasingly out of reach for Democrats

Despite the polls indicating a close result, the margins in Ohio and Iowa hardly budged in 2020. Trump won Iowa by 8.2% (a 1.2% swing to Biden) and Ohio by 8% (a 0.1% swing to Biden). Both states voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 – by a large margin in the case of Iowa – but both swung strongly to Trump in 2016, who won them both. The question after 2016: was this a one-off or the new normal? With the 2020 results in, the latter now seems likely. Expect Democrats to devote far fewer resources to these states in the future.

Nevada is very winnable for Republicans

Biden won all the states that Clinton won in 2016 and he won by margins greater than 5% in all these states, except one. That exception is Nevada. Biden won Nevada by 2.4%, exactly the same margin as Clinton’s in 2016. That makes it one of just eight states that did not swing to Biden and one of just two swing states (the second state I’ll come to shortly). 

This will place Nevada firmly on the Republicans radar in 2024. 

Democrats can still win mid-western states

After Trump swept all but two mid-western states in 2016, there was much discussion as to whether Democrats could ever win these states back. While Ohio and Iowa now seem out of reach, Biden successfully regained Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where Trump had his three narrowest wins in 2016. For the second election in a row, Wisconsin was the tipping point state, delivering the decisive electoral votes for Biden to win. Clearly Democrats need not give up on the mid-west.

Democrats can win traditionally Republican states in the south and south-west

After much trying, Democrats finally won two Republican-leaning swing states in the south: Georgia and Arizona. These states had been trending Democratic for the last decade but in 2020 the long-awaited breakthrough finally happened.

But does this represent the start of a new era for these states or a one-off result? Biden’s winning margins in these states were extremely close – 0.3% in Arizona and 0.2% in Georgia. As Perry Bacon Jr has pointed out, there are some similarities to Obama’s breakthrough in North Carolina in 2008, which was heralded as the start of a new era for that state. Yet since then, Republicans have won North Carolina at every election – albeit by narrow margins. Time will tell if Georgia and Arizona remain competitive but slightly Republican-leaning states like North Carolina or whether they follow in the footsteps of now-strongly Democratic Virginia and Colorado.

Ohio and Florida are no longer bellwethers

Ohio had been won by the winning candidate at every presidential election since 1964. Florida’s record was pretty good too. But in 2020, both states backed the losing candidate. Both states, it seems, are no longer vital to becoming president.

Which state will become the new bellwether? Maybe it will be Nevada. With the exception of 2016, Nevada has been won by the winning candidate at every other election since 1980.

Democrats best chances of further gains are in the south……

In 2020, Trump won just three states by margins under 8%: North Carolina, Florida and Texas. If you know your American geography, you will have noticed that all three of these states are in the South. If Democrats are to further improve their position in the electoral college, it is these three large states that will help them.

…..And Texas looms as a massive prize

There has been much hype about Texas going Democratic over the last couple of years. But Texas seems to have been perceived as something of disappointment for Democrats in 2020. The polls indicated that the result would be a bit closer than it actually was. 

But perhaps these expectations were unreasonable. Texas did swing solidly to Democrats in 2020 – the Republican margin was cut by 3.4% to 5.6%. That doesn’t quite make Texas a close state. But recall that in 2012 Obama lost the state by 15.8%. The transformation of Texas over the last decade has been extraordinary and the transformation continued in 2020. On current trends, Democrats will get very close to winning in 2024 and 2028.

And Texas is a huge prize. Flipping Texas would go some way towards eliminating the structural disadvantage Democrats have in the electoral college. Texas currently has 38 electoral votes. For comparison, the three crucial mid-western states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin have 46 votes combined. And the upcoming reallocation of electoral votes based on the latest census could make the comparison even better: Texas could be worth 40 votes while the mid-western trio shrinks to 44 votes at the 2024 election (if current predictions are correct).

For how much longer will Florida remain a swing state?

More than anything else, I think the results in Florida significantly affected perceptions of Biden’s victory on election day (mine included). Florida was the fastest state to count all its votes in 2020 and it has a long history as a bellwether: if you win Florida, you become president. Once Florida was called for Trump, that led to media narratives developing that the election was very close, despite the fact that many other swing states would not count all their votes for several days, and Biden ended up winning almost all the rest of the swing states.

Florida is still a swing state. Trump only won it by 3.4%, continuing its uninterrupted run of not being won by any party by more than 5 points since 2000. But for how much longer will Florida remain a swing state? The trend is unmistakable. Florida was one of just three states to swing to Trump by more than 1% in 2020. This built upon successive swings to Republicans over the last three presidential elections.

As mentioned above, because Florida may no longer be a bellwether state, it may be harder to draw conclusions about what results in Florida mean for the rest of the country, both before and on election night.

If Florida is no longer vital to the presidency, a lot less weight may be placed on it in the future.

What about Minnesota?

Clinton won Minnesota narrowly in 2016. Along with strongly Democratic Illinois, it was one of just two mid-western states that she won. In 2020, Biden regained the mid-western states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, with modest swings towards him of between 1.4% and 3%.

But Minnesota swung towards Democrats by 5.6%, with Biden’s margin increasing to 7.1%. Why has Minnesota diverged from all the other mid-western states and swung so strongly towards Biden? I have no idea. But I hope someone is looking into it.

What will the Republicans do next?

Usually after losing elections, political parties re-evaluate their strategy, messaging, policies and leadership to put themselves in a better position to win the next election. Will the Republican party go through this process? Losing both houses of parliament and the presidency over a two year period is clear proof that your electoral strategy is not working. But are the Republicans capable of this sort of self-reflection? Or will they maintain that the election was stolen and continue on their current path?

And how good was the polling?

Nate Silver has written a good overview of the 2020 election polling here, so I’ll refer you there for detailed analysis.

But briefly, there were no big polling surprises in 2020. 538’s presidential forecast on the day before the election predicted the correct winner in all but two states. One exception was North Carolina, which was expected to be very close but Biden was slightly favoured (by 1.7 points); Trump ended up winning by 1.4%. Florida was the only state that could be considered an upset: Biden was forecast to win by 2.5% and Trump ended up winning by 3.4%.

A better way to compare the accuracy of polling is not to see if it predicts the correct winner (although that is generally how the media and public judge polling) but to see how close it came to the actual margin. 

(For example, a poll that shows Biden winning by 0.5%, where Trump ends up winning by 0.5% would only be 1% off but predict the wrong winner. Whereas a poll that shows Biden winning by 0.5% when he actually wins by 10% would by a massive 9.5% off, even though it got the correct winner.)

So looking at the polling (using 538’s final presidential forecast) in the states that finished with margins of under 10%:

  • Two states had polling errors within two points of the actual margin (Georgia, Minnesota). Polling in these states was excellent.
  • Seven states had polling errors between two and five points of the actual margin (Arizona, Maine, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas). Polling in these states could be improved but was within the margin of error. 
  • Five states had polling errors more than five points off the actual margin (Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin). Polling in these states was pretty poor. One of these states was Florida, which has its own idiosyncrasies. But you may notice that the other four states are all in the mid-west. I suspect that’s no coincidence.

Is there a certain type of Trump supporter in the mid-west who is particularly hard to poll? One theory is that voters in these states, with a large cohort of non-university educated white voters, are getting harder to reach; another is that there may have been an oversampling of university-educated white voters in 2020 polls, with so many office workers working from home, and presumably more likely to pick up the phone.

Was the polling error for this election unique to the unusual circumstances of 2020? Or is it related to the similar but smaller polling error of 2016? It is concerning that the polling errors in 2016 and 2020 both overestimated the Democratic vote and underestimated the Republican vote. That could be a coincidence. If not, then pollsters will need to change their methodologies to prevent it happening again.

A final thought before I bring this long post to an end: It has been pointed out by others that polling for special elections over the last three years, the 2018 mid-term elections and the Georgia Senate runoffs last week was all pretty accurate. The polling error seems unique to 2016 and 2020. Is there something about Trump that completely changes voter behaviour in ways that we still can’t account for? And if so, does that mean that when he is not on the ballot the problem just goes away?

Other good US election analysis:

How the 2020 Election Changed the Electoral Map

Democrats Hope Georgia Will Become the Next Virginia, But It Could End Up Becoming the Next North Carolina

The Polls Weren’t Great. But That’s Pretty Normal

The Battle for the Battleground States

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10 days to go: A final preview of the United States election

6 weeks ago, I previewed the United States presidential election (part 1 here and part 2 here). Now with 10 days to go (polls begin closing on the morning of Wednesday 5th November Australian time), I will provide a final overview of where the race for the presidency stands. I will also provide a brief update on the Senate election, which I previewed four weeks ago.

As per my previous posts, I will be using FiveThirtyEight’s weighted polling averages for the presidential election and FiveThirtyEight’s Senate forecast for the Senate, as of Saturday 24th October.

Overview

In my last post, I noted that there are three ways Trump could still win despite being behind in the polls: a narrowing in the polls, a large polling error or undemocratic interference in the electoral process.

Now there are only 10 days to go. Has Trump narrowed Biden’s lead in the polls enough to put him within striking distance?

The answer is a resounding no. Far from narrowing, Biden’s lead has actually increased. 6 weeks ago, Biden led the national polls by 7.6 points. Today he leads by 9.7 points. If Biden wins by this margin, it would be the biggest popular vote victory of any presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan’s re-election in 1984. 

There is precious little time left for Trump to turn this lead around and only about 5% of voters are still unsure who to vote for. And with around 48 million people having already voted (that’s about one third of all votes cast in 2016), the pool of potential voters for Trump is shrinking fast.

Of course, the national popular vote does not actually determine the winner of the election – the electoral college does (read my previous post on this subject for an explanation of the process). So let’s dive into the latest state polling to get a better idea of the likely result in the electoral college.

Note: in my previous post on this subject, out of an abundance of caution, I included a section on swing states where Biden led by 10-15 points, including states like Virginia and Colorado. With just 10 days to go, it is clear that these states are not going to be competitive this year, so I will not be including them in this post.

Swing states where Biden leads by 5-10 points:

  • Minnesota: 7.9 points to Biden
  • Michigan: 7.6 points to Biden
  • Nevada: 6.5 points to Biden
  • Wisconsin: 6.5 points to Biden
  • Pennsylvania: 6.1 points to Biden

The first thing you will notice about these states is how similar the margins are compared to 6 weeks ago: the polling has been remarkably stable. Biden’s lead in the Clinton-won states of Minnesota and Nevada is slightly up, while Biden’s leads in the Trump-won states of Michigan and Wisconsin are exactly the same as they were six weeks ago, to the decimal point. The crucial state of Pennsylvania has improved for Biden by 1 point. Biden leads in these five states by between 6 and 8 points, a very solid lead (a polling error may endanger these leads but it would need to be a pretty large polling error). Simply winning these states is enough for Biden to be elected president. 

There are two other states where Biden was leading by 5-10 points six weeks ago: New Hampshire and Arizona. Biden’s lead in New Hampshire (which Clinton won in 2016) has increased by 3.5 points to 11.4 points, putting the state beyond Trump’s reach. Arizona we will come to momentarily.

Swing states where Biden or Trump lead by less than 5 points:

  • Florida: 3.3 points to Biden
  • Arizona: 3.2 points to Biden 
  • North Carolina: 2.9 points to Biden
  • Iowa: 1.3 points to Biden
  • Georgia: 1 point to Biden
  • Texas: 0.5 points to Trump
  • Ohio: 1 point to Trump

This group of close states has also been fairly stable but they have generally moved slightly in the direction of Biden over the last six weeks (reminder: Trump won all these states in 2016). Georgia and Iowa have moved towards Biden by 2.5 points and 2.9 points respectively, giving Biden the lead in both states (but they are still very close).

Biden’s lead in North Carolina has increased by 1.5 points to 2.9 points, while Florida has also shifted slightly in Biden’s direction. It is a good sign for Biden that his leads in both these states are up to around 3 points.

Trump still leads by the narrowest of margins in Ohio (by 1 point) and Texas (0.5 points), with both states hardly budging since six weeks ago. 

Arizona is the outlier here: it is the only one of these states that has swung towards Trump. Biden had lead by 5 points in Arizona six weeks ago but that lead has shrunk by 1.8 points to 3.2 points. I cannot offer an explanation for this, although it is notable that the southern states of Florida, Arizona and North Carolina are all now polling within half a point of each other.

So let’s briefly summarise:

  • Biden is leading in the mid-western states of Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania by 6-8 points. He is also leading in south-western Nevada by 6.5 points.
  • He is leading in the southern states of Florida, Arizona and North Carolina by around 3 points.
  • Iowa and Ohio in the mid-west, and Georgia and Texas in the south could go either way.

If Biden wins all of these states, this would result in Biden winning the electoral college 413 to Trump’s 125*, a margin of 288 and the biggest win in the electoral college since George HW Bush’s election in 1988 (he won by 315).

States where Trump leads by 5-10 points:

  • Alaska: 5.7 points to Trump
  • Missouri: 6.5 points to Trump
  • Nebraska*: 7 points to Trump
  • South Carolina: 7.1 points to Trump
  • Montana: 7.7 points to Trump
  • Kansas: 8.9 points to Trump

There has been hardly any movement in these states over the last six weeks (excluding Alaska and Nebraska, which did not have polling averages when I wrote my previous post). Kansas and Montana have weakened slightly for Trump, whereas South Carolina has slightly strengthened. Missouri has not budged.

Trump is favoured to win these states but I include them because just as a significant polling error could cost Biden his lead in states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, a significant polling error could cost Trump his leads in these states. 

Summarising the presidential race

Trump is very far behind in the polls. Before turning to the Senate, let’s return to the three ways Trump could win.

A narrowing of the polls? As discussed earlier in this post, Trump has been losing ground in the polls over the last six weeks. As every day passes, and millions more Americans vote, the probability of the polls tightening shrinks further. Is it possible Trump makes up lots of ground in the last 10 days of the campaign? Yes. Is it likely? Nope.

A major polling error? Biden’s national vote lead of 9.7 points is so large, Trump needs a polling error to be more than a large error; he needs it to be a gigantic, once-in-a-generation polling screw-up. The state polls are a bit closer, with Biden leading in the crucial tipping point states by 6-8 points. A large polling error could cost Biden his leads in these states but the polling error would have to be very widespread, costing Biden his leads in not just Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania but also Florida, Arizona, North Carolina, Iowa and Georgia. Possible? Yes. Likely? Probably not. And remember, a polling error is as likely to benefit Biden as it is to benefit Trump.

Election shenanigans? This continues to be a bit of an unpredictable wildcard but again, if the polls are right, Biden’s polling lead is so large that literally millions of votes would have to be tossed out to change the result. That would require a very extensive and sophisticated rigging operation. Possible? Yes. Likely? Who knows, but my gut says that it is very unlikely.

The Senate race is still close but Democrats are edging ahead

Now for a brief Senate update. The race for the Senate has remained tight and fairly stable since my last post on this subject four weeks ago but a number of key races have shifted slightly in the direction of Democrats, improving their odds of gaining a Senate majority.

(Reminder: for the Senate, I use FiveThirtyEight’s probabilistic forecast of the Senate, not polling averages. Eg. Republicans have a 78% chance of winning Alabama; 78% is the probability that a party will win, not the size of the winning margin).

Republicans are still favoured to win Alabama off Democrats, with a 78% chance (up 1%). Republicans also have a 21% chance of winning Michigan from the Democrats (down 1%). These races have hardly changed since my last post.

Democrats are still favourites to win four Republican Senate states, with their lead in Colorado in particular increasing over the last few weeks. Democrats have an 83% of winning Colorado (up 12%), a 78% of winning Arizona (up 1%), a 64% chance of winning North Carolina (up 1%) and a 62% chance of winning Maine (up 3%).

Democrats have also pulled ahead in two Republican-held seats that may be crucial to delivering the Democrats a Senate majority: Iowa and Georgia. Iowa continues to be a tossup race but Democrats have their noses in front with a 56% chance (up 9%). The most substantial change in any Senate race has been in the Georgia special election, with Democrats chances improving significantly from 19% to 54%. I recommend reading this article if you want to understand why. In short, the Georgia special election is a case study of the dangers of pandering to your base when the vast majority of voters are not in your base.

Democrats are underdogs in another six races currently held by Republicans but they have improved their chances in five of these races: they have a 32% chance in Montana (down 2%), a 29% chance in the regular Georgia election (up 3%), a 25% chance in Kansas (up 5%), a 23% chance in South Carolina (up 5%) and a 20% chance in Alaska (up 6%).

Democrats are a more remote chance in Texas (13%) and Mississippi (11%).

To sum up the Senate: Democrats will probably lose Alabama and gain Colorado, Arizona, North Carolina and Maine. That results in a Senate split 50-50. If Democrats also gain Iowa and the Georgia special seat, where they are narrowly ahead, that gets them to 52-48, a solid enough majority to enable Biden to govern effectively.

So Democrats would be feeling good about the Senate – but it is not a done deal and there is little room for error. 

*Assuming Biden wins all electoral votes in Maine and one electoral vote in Nebraska, which do not award all their electoral votes to the statewide winner.

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The race for the United States Senate

The untimely death of progressive Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has brought into focus the power of the United States Senate and how critical it has been for Republicans to maintain conservative control of the powerful court.

In my last two posts, I previewed the United States presidential election where Joe Biden is the favourite to beat Donald Trump. But for Biden to achieve any of the reforms he has committed to implementing, he will also need Democrats to gain control of Congress. Congress is made up of the House of Representatives and the Senate. 

Democrats took control of the House of Representatives in 2018 and they should have comparatively little difficulty holding it in 2020. The Senate, however, is a different matter. This blog post will preview the 2020 Senate election.

Overview

Compared to the electoral college (the system used to elect a president), the Senate is simple. There are 100 seats, with each of the 50 states electing two senators. Around one third of senators are up for election every two years with each senator serving a six-year term. Winning a Senate seat requires winning a statewide vote. Usually just one senator in each state faces election at the same time (eg. one senator from Michigan faced an election in 2018 and the second senator faces election this year). With 33-34 senators up for election at any one time, this means not every state will have a senate election every two years.

This means that a strong performance nationally does not always translate into gains in the Senate. This can cause some seemingly counter-intuitive impacts on the make-up of the Senate.

Here are some examples. In 2018, Democrats had a massive win in the popular vote, beating Republicans in the House of Representatives by 9 points. Yet Democrats actually lost Senate seats that year (going from 49 to 47). 

And in 2016, Republicans narrowly won a swath of Senate seats in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Florida. Democrats trounced Republicans in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin in 2018 and may do so again in 2020 – but this will not win them any Senate seats because 2016 senators will not face election until 2022!

Because of these idiosyncrasies, Republicans are on the defensive in many Senate seats this year but it will take a very strong performance from Democrats to gain control. Biden may win the popular vote for president by 5-8 points but Democrats may only be able to eke out a Senate majority of just one or two seats. A smaller Biden win could leave the Senate in the hands of Republicans. 

Going in to 2020, the Republicans have a narrow majority: 53 seats to Democrats’ 47.

There are a couple of seats this year that Republicans could gain and a much larger number of seats that Democrats are targeting. Let’s look at each of these groups in turn.

Rather than using a polling average like I did for my previous post on the presidential election, today I will use FiveThirtyEight’s Senate forecast, which incorporates polling averages and a range of other inputs to forecast likely results. I will include all states where either party has a greater than 10% chance of winning a Senate seat off the other party.

Please note that the numbers below are probabilities that a party will win a seat, not a projection of the winning margin (eg. Republicans have a 77% of winning Alabama. They will not win the vote in Alabama by 77%).

Potential Republican gains

  • Alabama – Republicans have a 77% chance of winning
  • Michigan – Republicans have a 22% chance of winning

There are very few pick-up opportunities for Republicans this year: senators facing election in 2020 were first elected in 2014, the year Republicans swept many competitive Senate seats and took control of the Senate from Democrats, who had held a Senate majority from 2006 to 2014.

Republicans are favourites to win Alabama. Alabama is one of the most strongly Republican and pro-Trump states in the country so it will be difficult for Democratic Senator Doug Jones to hold on to this seat. 

You may be thinking, how did Democrats win this seat in the first place? Well, a special election (similar to a by-election in Australian terminology) was held in 2017 to fill this vacant seat and Republicans selected a candidate who faced accusations of child sexual abuse. Not great for winning elections, huh? Alabama may be one of the most pro-Republican states in the country but when faced with the choice of a Republican accused of abusing children and a Democrat not accused of abusing children, it is hardly surprising that voters chose the latter. 

This year, Doug Jones will face a far less problematic Republican candidate and Republicans are favoured to win back the seat.

The only other serious pick-up opportunity for Republicans is in Michigan but with Joe Biden holding a large lead there in the presidential race, this seems unlikely. But if Trump does much better than expected, it is certainly possible for Republicans to win this seat.

Potential Democratic gains

  • Arizona – Democrats have a 77% chance of winning
  • Colorado – Democrats have a 71% chance of winning
  • North Carolina – Democrats have a 63% chance of winning
  • Maine – Democrats have a 59% chance of winning
  • Iowa – Democrats have a 47% chance of winning
  • Montana – Democrats have a 34% chance of winning
  • Georgia – Democrats have a 26% chance of winning
  • Kansas – Democrats have a 20% chance of winning
  • Georgia special election – Democrats have a 19% chance of winning
  • South Carolina – Democrats have a 18% chance of winning
  • Alaska – Democrats have a 14% chance of winning
  • Texas – Democrats have a 13% chance of winning

As you can see, there are way more potential gains for Democrats this year than Republicans. Democrats are currently favoured to win three Senate seats off Republicans, with another two seats too close to call. Democrats are also competitive in another seven seats.

The most likely pick-ups for Democrats are in Arizona and Colorado. Colorado is polling very strongly for Biden and he has consistently led in Arizona (albeit by a much smaller margin). Despite their clear vulnerabilities, the incumbent Republican senators in these states have strongly backed Trump at every turn, making their re-election that much harder. Democrats would be feeling very confident of picking up these two seats.

Democrats would also be feeling confident about North Carolina. Biden is only narrowly ahead there in the presidential race but the incumbent Republican senator has been polling pretty poorly. It’s still a bit early, but things are looking good for Democrats here.

Maine and Iowa loom as crucial states that will go a long way to determining which party controls the Senate. 

Democrats are currently polling well in Maine but there a number of factors that make this race more uncertain. A lot of this comes down to the long-serving incumbent Republican Senator Susan Collins. She has been a bit of a maverick in Maine and historically has had no difficulty winning by huge margins despite Maine being a generally Democratic leaning-state. She has also voted against Trump’s policies more than any other Republican senator. Will Collins be able to maintain support from moderate Democratic voters who have crossed party lines to vote for her in previous elections? The polling suggests not but the race may be close.

Iowa is currently the most competitive Senate race. The FiveThirtyEight forecast shows the race as a virtual tie, although the Democratic candidate has been pulling ahead in recent polls. This race could go either way but this seat will be critical for Democrats to reach 51 seats if they lose Alabama to Republicans. 

Beyond Iowa, there are seven other states where FiveThirtyEight currently gives Democrats a greater than 10% chance of winning. The most likely of these are Montana, Kansas, the two Georgia seats and South Carolina, where Republicans lead by very narrow margins in polls. Alaska and Texas are also possible gains but probably out of reach unless the Democratic candidates do better than the polls currently indicate.

Summing up

If we assume Republicans win Alabama and Democrats win Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina and Maine, this would result in a Senate split between each party of exactly 50-50.

If the Senate is deadlocked with each party voting 50-50 on a law, the Vice-President can be the tie-breaker. So if Biden is elected President, a 50-50 Senate is a de facto Democratic majority and vice versa.

But such a narrow majority would be a disaster for progressives because there is a very wide range of ideological views amongst Senate Democrats and one senator in particular looms as being especially problematic: Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Despite being a member of the Democratic Party, Manchin is a conservative and if his vote is needed to pass laws, very little progressive legislation will pass the Senate and it is much less likely that there will be reform of the Supreme Court.

To bypass Manchin, Democrats actually need to win a minimum of 51 seats. That could mean Iowa’s Senate seat will be critical.

So while everyone will rightly be watching the presidential race, keep your eye on some Senate seats as well. Particularly Maine and Iowa.

The data used in this post was sourced from FiveThirtyEight’s Senate forecast on Saturday 26 September. You can see the forecast here.

For a list of Senate polls by state, see here

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With seven weeks to go, the US election is Biden’s to lose: Part 2

This post is a continuation of yesterday’s post, providing an overview of the state of play in the 2020 presidential election. 

Swing states where Biden or Trump lead by less than 5 points:

  • Florida: 2.7 points to Biden
  • North Carolina: 1.4 points to Biden
  • Texas: 0.8 points to Trump
  • Ohio: 0.9 points to Trump
  • Georgia: 1.5 points to Trump
  • Iowa: 1.6 points to Trump

These are six states that could go either way in 2020. All were won by Trump in 2016. 

Ohio and Florida are swing states par excellence. Results in Florida are reliably close and this year looks like no exception. Since 2000, Florida has not been won by more than 5 points by any party. Biden has consistently led in state polling since April but the gap has narrowed in recent weeks.

Ohio is also a consistently competitive state, although it swung strongly behind Trump in 2016. It has a remarkable history as a bellwether: it has been won by the winning candidate at every presidential election since 1964, and has sided with the winning candidate all but once since 1944! Ohio’s status as a bellwether may come to end this year: despite Biden’s national lead of over 7 points, Trump leads in Ohio by just under 1 point.

Iowa is another of those mid-western states (like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio) that has been shifting to the right over the last decade. Obama won Iowa by 10 points in 2008; Trump won it by 9 points in 2016. 

In terms of its political lean, Iowa has often sat in the middle of the Midwestern states over the last couple of decades: it has not been quite as strong for Democrats as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin but it has been consistently more Democratic than Ohio. However, Iowa’s shift to the right in 2016 was large and even now Trump leads in the state by 1.6 points. 

North Carolina and Georgia are Republican leaning swing states. North Carolina has only been won by Democrats once since 1980 (by Obama in 2008) but results are often close. Biden is currently leading by a bit over 1 point.

Georgia has not been won by Democrats since Bill Clinton’s victory in 1992 but demographic changes have seen Georgia slowly shuffle to the left – the 2018 election for state governor was very close. Part of the reason Democrats have not yet had a breakthrough in the state is because Georgia is one of the least elastic states in the country – that means that there are very few swing voters. The state’s troubled history of racialised politics means that many voters are either rusted on Democrats or Republicans. In 2020, it looks like Biden will have a decent chance of picking it up – Trump is leading in the polls by just one and a half points.   

Finally, Texas looms as one of the most interesting contests this election. Trump currently leads in the state polls by less than one point as demographic changes shift this formerly staunch Republican state to the left. Although Texas is unlikely to be decisive in determining the election winner (Biden will be elected if he wins just the four states where he is already leading by more than 5 points), a Biden win in Texas would have a seismic impact on the electoral map. Texas has not been won by any Democratic nominee since 1980, and it is the only large state that Republicans can consistently rely on winning. Without Texas, there are far fewer paths to a majority for a Republican nominee.

All in all, these six states are unlikely to be the tipping point that determines whether Biden or Trump wins the election. But they will determine whether Biden wins narrowly or by a landslide. 

If Biden only gains the four states where he leads in the polls by more than five points (Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Arizona), he will win the electoral college 289 to Trump’s 247. But if he also wins these six states, Biden’s win becomes a massive landslide: 409 to 125. That’s because these states are big and have a lot of electoral votes – with the exception of Iowa, the other five states in this category are all in the top ten most populous states in the country. 

States where Trump leads by 5-10 points:

  • Missouri: 6.5 points to Trump
  • South Carolina: 6.7 points to Trump
  • Montana: 8.4 points to Trump
  • Kansas: 9.2 points to Trump
  • Alaska: N/A

I will briefly mention the states where Trump is leading by five to ten points: Missouri, South Carolina, Montana, Kansas and Alaska. I have intentionally not called these states ‘swing states’ because all traditionally vote Republican.

In all likelihood, Biden will probably not win these states. But the fact that Trump’s leads in these states are so weak is a clear sign of the trouble he is in. Trump won South Carolina and Alaska by over 14 points in 2016, Missouri by over 18 points and Montana and Kansas by over 20 points.

Not even in Obama’s landslide victory in 2008 did Democrats win any of these states (although he came extremely close to winning Missouri). South Carolina, Kansas and Alaska have been won by Republicans at every election for the last forty years, and Montana has been won by Democrats just once (in 1992). These are most definitely not swing states. 

A Biden victory in these states may be unlikely, but just as a major polling error could endanger Biden’s leads in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Arizona, so too a polling error could endanger Trump’s leads in any of these five states.

There have not been enough polls of Alaska for FiveThirtyEight to produce a polling average but the few polls that do exist indicate a competitive Republican-leaning race. 

Why Trump could still win

The polls paint a good picture for Biden’s chances. But he definitely doesn’t have it locked up. There are still at least three reasons that Trump could win:

  • A narrowing of the polls. They say a week is a long time in politics. Well, we are still seven weeks from the election, so there is still time for Trump to reduce Biden’s leads in key swing states. Nonetheless, the stability of Biden’s polling lead, the relative lack of undecided voters this year and Trump’s apparent inability to course correct for a sustained period of time means I am pretty skeptical this will eventuate. Oh, and Americans have already started voting.
  • A sizeable polling error. Polls are not perfect – they are a snapshot of a group of voters at a particular point in time. Polling is a very useful tool but it is perfectly normal for polls to be a few points off (and even more on occasion). This means that it is possible Trump is doing better than the polls suggest. But this cuts both ways – a polling error is just as likely to benefit Biden as it is to benefit Trump. The polls may have had a 3.2 point bias to Democrats in 2016 but they had a 2.5 point bias to Republicans in 2012 (for a more detailed explanation of polling error, see here).
  • Election shenanigans. US elections are often accompanied by minor and occasionally major scandals, with issues around ballot admissibility and election administration par for the course in a country where one major party knows it can only win elections by excluding some voters. But this year, with so many voters voting by mail, with the possibility that the election winner will not be known on the night of the election and with President Trump explicitly suggesting that he may not respect the election result, there is more uncertainty than usual this year. This is the real wildcard.

So while Trump’s re-election remains a distinct possibility, Biden is in the box seat. Biden’s polling lead has been large and stable for so long, I find it hard to see Trump winning unless something changes soon. Time is fast running out for Trump to bridge the gap.

All poll numbers used in this post were sourced from FiveThirtyEight’s presidential polling averages on Sunday 13thSeptember.

For an overview of each state’s voting history in presidential elections, see here.

To see an interactive map of which states Biden and Trump need to win the presidency, check out 270towin.com.

For a cool visualisation of how the partisanship of swing states has changed over the last 20 years, see this 538 article.

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With seven weeks to go, the US election is Biden’s to lose: Part 1

In just over seven weeks on November 3, the United States will hold its presidential election, alongside an election for the House of Representatives and one third of the Senate. This post will analyse the presidential polls and what they can tell us about Donald Trump and Joe Biden’s prospects for victory.

Unlike in Australia over the last year, there are new polls almost every day in the United States and there are a number of poll aggregators, including FiveThirtyEight’s weighted polling average. FiveThirtyEights’s polling average will be the main source of polling information for this post.

The national picture

As of Sunday, Biden leads FiveThirtyEight’s polling average by 7.6 points. This lead has been extremely steady all year. In fact, since Biden became the de facto Democratic nominee for president after Bernie Sanders suspended his campaign in April, Biden’s lead in the polls over Trump has never dropped below five points. 

Since June 5th, Biden’s lead over Trump has not varied by more than a few points, staying above 7 points and below 10 points. That is a very resilient lead and is particularly impressive considering all that has happened in the US over the last five months (read here in case you’ve forgotten).

If Biden wins the popular vote count on election day by his current 7.6 point margin, he will almost certainly be elected president in November.

But, as anyone who followed the 2016 election will remember, winning the popular vote does not guarantee an election victory. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 2.1% in 2016, yet failed to win the presidency.

US presidential elections are not determined by winning the national popular vote. Victory requires winning a majority of delegates in the electoral college. Each state is accorded electoral college delegates (from here on called ‘electoral votes’) roughly based on their population, with each state awarded a minimum of three votes (it’s slightly more complicated than that but that’s the short explanation). The most populous state, California, has 55 electoral votes. The District of Columbia, which is not a state, is also awarded three electoral votes. 

There are 538 electoral votes in total, so getting a majority requires winning 270 electoral votes.

In 48 states and DC, electoral votes are awarded to the candidate who wins the most votes statewide. In two states, Maine and Nebraska, delegates are awarded a bit differently. Maine awards two electoral votes to the statewide winner and two votes to the winner in each congressional district. Nebraska awards two votes to the statewide winner and three votes to the winner in each district. In 2020, only one electoral vote is likely to be competitive in each of these two states, so I won’t say anything more about them in this post.

The majority of states (and therefore electoral votes) are not competitive at most elections. For example, there are 14 states that have voted Democratic at every presidential election since 1992 and 13 states that have voted Republican at every election since 1980. A further eight states have voted Republican at every election since 2000. The vast majority of these 35 states are not expected to be competitive this year (with a few exceptions that will be discussed below).

So to summarise, becoming president requires a candidate to gain a majority of electoral votes by winning in competitive states.

With the explanation done, let’s turn to the state polls.

Biden is currently leading in the polls in every state that Clinton won in 2016, plus six states that Trump won in 2016.

At the moment, the traditionally competitive states (called ‘swing states’) can be divided into three general groups: 

  • Swing states where Biden or Trump lead by less than five points. These states are very competitive.
  • Swing states where Biden leads by between five and ten points. Biden is the favourite in these states, but they remain competitive.
  • Swing states where Biden leads by more than ten points. These states are unlikely to be competitive this year.

Let’s tackle each of these groups in reverse order.

I will also briefly look at the states where Trump is leading by between five and ten points.

Swing states where Biden leads by more than 10 points:

  • New Mexico: 13 points
  • Maine*: 11 points
  • Virginia: 10.8 points
  • Colorado: 10.6 points

New Mexico, Virginia and Colorado all voted for Clinton in 2016. These are states that have traditionally been competitive swing states but have been trending more Democratic in recent years. Neither Colorado nor Virginia has been won by a Republican since 2004 and New Mexico has only gone Republican once since 1992. Nonetheless, when Republicans are doing well, they can expect to be competitive in these states. 

Clearly that is not the case this year. With Trump underwater nationally by more than 7 points, these states are highly likely to be won by Biden.

Swing states where Biden leads by 5 to 10 points:

  • Michigan: 7.6 points
  • Minnesota: 7.4 points
  • New Hampshire: 6.9 points
  • Wisconsin: 6.5 points
  • Nevada: 5.9 points
  • Pennsylvania: 5.1 points
  • Arizona: 5 points

These are seven states where Biden has a decent but not overwhelming lead. Three of these are Democratic leaning swing states that Clinton won in 2016: Minnesota, New Hampshire and Nevada.

Since 1992, New Hampshire has only backed a Republican once and Nevada twice. Minnesota has historically been a safe Democratic state – in fact, it is the only state to have backed a Democrat at every election for the last forty years – but it has been edging to the right over the last decade. Biden’s leads in these states are pretty strong but not overwhelming. If Trump is going to gain any states that Clinton won in 2016, it will be one of these three states.

Biden is also leading in four states that Trump won in 2016: Arizona, and the infamous trio of mid-western states that unexpectedly delivered the presidency to Trump: Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

Until 2016, Michigan and Pennsylvania hadn’t voted for a Republican since 1988 and Wisconsin hadn’t since 1984. But they have been slowing trending to the right and Trump ended up winning all three states in 2016 – each by less than 1%. Had Clinton won these three states, she would have won enough electoral votes to become president. All three states loom as crucial pick-ups for Biden and crucial holds for Trump in 2020.

Arizona is a traditionally Republican state – it has been won by Democrats just once in the last forty years. But it has been shifting to the left over the last decade and this year it may finally cross the threshold.

If Biden can hold New Hampshire, Nevada and Minnesota, while gaining three out of four of Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Arizona, Biden will win the presidency. There is still enough time that Biden’s lead could narrow in all these states by election day and a sizeable polling error may mean that these states are closer than they appear. But you’d much rather be in Biden’s position in these states than Trump’s.

Part two of this post will be posted tomorrow.

All poll numbers used in this post were sourced from 538’s presidential polling averages on Sunday 13thSeptember.

For an overview of each state’s voting history in presidential elections, see here.

To see an interactive map of which states Biden and Trump need to win the presidency, check out 270towin.com.

For a cool visualization of how the partisanship of swing states has changed over the last 20 years, see this 538 article.

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A third of all US coal generation occurs in just five states

In last week’s post, I looked at the transformation that has occurred in the United States’ electricity sector over the last decade. Today’s post will again look at the United States but I will hone in on the situation in individual states. I do not have the time to do a detailed overview of the electricity sector in all 50 states, so instead I will just analyse one metric: coal generation.

Warning: there are a lot of numbers in this post.

Much like in Australia, there is significant variation in coal generation by state in the United States. On the low end, Rhode Island and Vermont have been coal free for over a decade. On the high end, West Virginia has sourced over 90% of its electricity from coal for the last decade.

But let’s start in 2010.

In 2010, 45% of the United States’ electricity was from coal and 48 out of 50 states burned coal (the aforementioned Rhode Island and Vermont were the only two that didn’t). 

10 states were heavily reliant on coal, using it for over 70% of their electricity. Theses states were West Virginia (97%) and Kentucky (93%) in the Appalachian Mountains, the industrial mid-western states of Indiana (90%), Ohio (82%), Missouri (81%) and Iowa (72%), and the sparsely populated Western states of Wyoming (89%), North Dakota (82%) and Utah (81%). New Mexico (71%) in the south-west rounds out the top 10.

17 states generated between 40% and 69% of their electricity from coal, including large states like Michigan (59%), North Carolina (56%), Georgia (53%), Pennsylvania (48%) and Illinois (47%).

9 states used coal for between 20% and 39% of their electricity, including Arizona (39%), Texas (37%), Virginia (35%) and Florida (26%). 

Finally, 12 states sourced less than 20% of their electricity from coal, including New York (10%) and California (1%). Plus there were the two coal free states.

Between 2010 and 2019, the situation changed dramatically. The overall proportion of US electricity from coal almost halved to 24%. By 2019 47 states still burned coal, with Massachusetts being the only state to end coal burning over the last decade. But almost all states had reduced coal burning (the exceptions being Alaska and Maine, which already used very little coal to begin with).

12 states have substantially reduced the proportion of their electricity sourced from coal by over 30%. The most impressive changes occurred in Ohio and Delaware. Ohio, a large industrial mid-western state, had been the fourth most coal-reliant state in the country in 2010 but with a huge 43% reduction in the proportion of coal generation, Ohio now relies on coal for just 39% of its electricity. The tiny east coast state of Delaware also experienced a 43% reduction but because its coal use was much lower than Ohio to begin with, its coal use is now very close to zero (2%).

Other large coal users have also undergone a big drop in coal use such as Iowa (down 35%), Kansas (down 34%) and Indiana (down 31%). Large states like Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia and Pennsylvania also saw substantial declines in coal use, as did smaller states like Maryland, Oklahoma and Tennessee.

On the flip side, 12 other states experienced very underwhelming declines in coal use. This doesn’t include Alaska (up 1%) and Maine (up 0.3%), which both saw a marginal increase in coal reliance. Of those 12 states, six already had very low coal use in 2010 (Idaho, California, Washington, Oregon, Connecticut and New Jersey) so there really wasn’t much further for coal use to fall in these states.

However four heavily coal-reliant states also had unusually small declines in coal use. These states were Wyoming (down 5%), West Virginia (down 6%), Missouri (down 9%) and Nebraska (down 9%).

So how do the states compare now?

In 2019, there were just four states that still sourced over 70% of their electricity from coal (down from 10 states in 2010) and just eight states sourced between 40% and 69% of their electricity from coal (down from 17 states in 2010).

23 states now rely on coal for less than 20% of their electricity (up from 12 in 2010), plus there are three coal free states. The other 12 states are between 20% and 39%.

In 2019, the four most coal-reliant states were West Virginia (91%) and Kentucky (73%) in the Appalachian Mountains, Missouri (73%) in the industrial mid-west and Wyoming (84%) in the west. Utah (65%) and North Dakota (63%) were fifth and sixth.

Of the twelve largest states by population (with more than eight million people), Ohio (39%), Michigan (32%) and Illinois (27%) were the only states where coal-reliance was above the national average of 24% in 2019. 

North Carolina (23%), Georgia (20%), Texas (19%) and Pennsylvania (17%) all had a below average reliance on coal, while Florida (9%), Virginia (4%), New Jersey (2%), New York (0.3%) and California (0.1%) are all getting very close to phasing out coal completely.

As an Australian, I find these numbers striking. The fact that the four most populous states in the United States (California, Texas, Florida and New York) source 0.1%, 19%, 9% and 0.3% respectively of their electricity from coal highlights just how exposed Australia is to coal, with Australia’s three largest states reliant on coal for over 70% of their electricity.

Of the 50 states in the United States, 46 are less reliant on coal than Australia’s three biggest states. In fact, if New South Wales were a part of the United States, it would be the third most coal-reliant state in the whole country! Add in Queensland and Victoria, and Australia’s three biggest states would all be in the top seven most coal-reliant states in the United States (refer to Table 1). 

Table 1.  The most coal reliant states in the United States and Australia.

State:Proportion of electricity from coal in 2019:
West Virginia91%
Wyoming84.3%
New South Wales76.8%
Missouri72.8%
Kentucky72.7%
Queensland70.5%
Victoria70.2%
Utah64.4%

Until now, this post has focused exclusively on the proportion of coal use for electricity generation by state. But I will conclude this post with a brief look at the gross amount of coal use by state. Why does this matter? Well, some small states may get a large proportion of their electricity from coal but they may use a lower quantity of coal than a much bigger state with a lower proportion of coal use.

Take the examples of Texas and Wyoming. Wyoming gets 84% of its electricity from coal while Texas gets just 19% of its electricity from coal. But whereas Texas is the second most populous state in the US with over 28 million people, Wyoming is the least populous state with a bit over 500,000 people – its population is fifty times smaller than Texas. Wyoming sourced over 34,000MWh of electricity from coal and Texas sourced over 91,000MWh. So despite Texas being significantly less reliant on coal than Wyoming, it actually burnt almost three times more coal than Wyoming.

When looking at the gross amount of coal use, Texas burns more coal than any other state in the United States. In fact, a third of all the country’s coal burnt for energy generation occurs in just five states. As well as Texas, Indiana, West Virginia, Missouri and Kentucky collectively produce 33% of all the United States’ coal fired electricity. If the United States is to rapidly reduce emissions from the electricity sector by phasing out coal in coming years, these are the five states that will bear the brunt of the transition.

Table 2. List of states in the United States, comparing the proportion of electricity generation from coal in 2010, 2015 and 2019 and how it has changed. Sorted by 2019 coal generation.

State:2010 % coal2015 % coal2019 % coalChange from 2010 to 2019
West Virginia96.70%94.10%91%-5.70%
Wyoming89.30%88%84.30%-5.00%
Missouri81.30%78.10%72.80%-8.50%
Kentucky92.70%86.90%72.70%-20.00%
Utah80.60%75.50%64.40%-16.20%
North Dakota81.90%74.60%62.80%-19.10%
Indiana89.70%75.20%59.10%-30.60%
Nebraska63.80%60.60%54.70%-9.10%
Montana62.40%54.70%52%-10.40%
Colorado68.10%60.20%45.10%-23.00%
Wisconsin62.50%56%42%-20.50%
New Mexico70.70%62.50%41.80%-28.90%
Ohio82.10%58.80%39.10%-43.00%
Arkansas46.20%39.10%37.90%-8.30%
Iowa71.80%52.60%35.10%-36.70%
Kansas67.80%54%33.40%-34.40%
Michigan58.80%46.80%32%-26.80%
Minnesota52.30%43.30%31.50%-20.80%
Illinois46.50%38%26.90%-19.60%
United States – total44.80%33.20%23.50%-21.30%
North Carolina55.90%31.10%23.30%-32.60%
Tennessee53%40.10%22.90%-30.10%
South Dakota32.80%15.50%20.80%-12.00%
Arizona39.10%32%20.50%-18.60%
Georgia53.30%28.80%19.80%-33.50%
Texas36.50%27%19%-17.50%
Alabama41.40%27.20%18.80%-22.60%
Pennsylvania48%30.10%16.80%-31.20%
South Carolina36.20%23.40%14.80%-21.40%
Maryland54.30%38.30%14.40%-39.90%
Hawaii14.30%13.20%13.20%-1.10%
Alaska9.20%10.60%10.60%1.40%
Oklahoma43.60%32.70%9.40%-34.20%
Florida26.20%18.10%8.70%-17.50%
Louisiana23.30%14.10%7.30%-16.00%
Nevada19.90%6.80%6.90%-13.00%
Washington8.20%4.60%6.80%-1.40%
Mississippi25%9.90%6.60%-18.40%
Oregon7.50%4.10%4.10%-3.40%
Virginia34.90%20.40%3.60%-31.30%
Delaware45.60%7.70%2.30%-43.30%
New Hampshire13.90%4.70%1.90%-12.00%
New Jersey9.80%2.40%1.50%-8.30%
Maine0.50%0.80%0.80%0.30%
New York9.90%1.70%0.30%-9.60%
Connecticut7.80%1.60%0.10%-7.70%
California1%0.20%0.10%-0.90%
Idaho0.70%0.50%0.10%-0.60%
Massachusetts19.40%7%Coal free-19.40%
Rhode IslandCoal freeCoal freeCoal free
VermontCoal freeCoal freeCoal free

All data on electricity generation in the United States was calculated from the United States Energy Information Administration’s Electricity Data Browser.

Data on Australian electricity generation used in this post was calculated from the Federal Government’s Australian Energy Statistics – Table O, released in May 2020.

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In just one decade, the United States has halved its coal use

It is one of the most remarkable energy transition stories – how the United States, the world’s largest economy, has halved its coal generation in just a decade. This post will provide an overview of American electricity generation, how it has changed over the last decade and how it compares with Australia. My post next week will explore the fascinating differences in coal generation across the 50 American states.

The national picture

Table 1. Proportion of electricity generation by fuel source in the United States.

Fuel source% in 2010% in 2015% in 2019Change from
2010 to 2019
Natural gas23.9%32.7%38.4%14.5%
Coal44.8%33.2%23.5%-21.3%
Nuclear19.6%19.6%19.7%0.1%
Other renewables 
(incl. wind and solar)
4.1%7.2%10.9%6.8%
Conventional
hydro
6.3%6.1%6.7%0.4%
Other1.5%1.3%1.1%-0.4%
Total
renewable
10.4%13.3%17.6%7.2%
Total
non-emitting
30%32.9%37.3%7.3%
Change in
total generation 
from 2010
to 2019
-0.2%

It is no secret that current United States President Trump doesn’t accept the reality of climate change and support for the coal industry has been a key part of his electoral strategy. It is also no secret that former President Obama mostly failed to seriously cut greenhouse gas emissions in his eight years in office because many of his policy initiatives were blocked by a Republican-controlled Congress (and conservative Democrats). 

It is a reflection of the weakness of the presidency and the federal government in the United States more generally that these events have had little impact on the underlying economic trends that have driven a steep and rapid decline in coal use over the last decade.

In 2010, coal was the single largest source of electricity generation in the United States, providing 45% of the country’s electricity. Gas provided 24% and nuclear provided 20%. Renewables, primarily hydro, provided 10% and other sources provided 1.5%.

Since then, coal generation has collapsed by almost half to just 24%. About one third of the decline in coal has been replaced by renewables, primarily new wind and solar plants. But gas generation has replaced the other two-thirds, increasing to 38%. Increased gas generation is not much of an improvement than coal from an emissions perspective because gas can be just as polluting as coal.

Gas is now the single largest source of electricity generation in the United States, even if it only provides a bit over a third of the country’s electricity. Coal, nuclear and renewables provide 24%, 20% and 18% respectively of the country’s electricity. 

But there is more nuance to this. Although coal’s decline has been steady over the past decade, the increase in gas and renewables has not.

Between 2010 and 2015, the proportion of coal generation declined by almost 12%. About three-quarters of the gap left by coal was filled by gas and just one quarter was filled by renewables. This period was primarily characterised by cheap new gas supplies driving out more expensive coal.

The situation has been quite different over the last four years. Between 2015 and 2019, coal declined by almost 10%. Yet gas only covered about 55% of this gap; renewables covered 45%. Wind and solar in the United States are now outcompeting coal and are increasingly outcompeting gas (in Australia, wind and solar farms are already significantly cheaper than both new coal and new gas). Increasingly as coal power stations shut down, more and more of the gap is being filled by renewables.

On current trends, renewables will soon become the second largest source of electricity generation in the United States, on track to overtake both coal and nuclear in the next two to three years. In contrast to the rapid decline of coal and the rise in gas and renewables, nuclear generation has been stagnant, up just 0.1% in a decade.

There are some revealing contrasts between the energy transformations taking place in the United States and Australia:

  • The United States has long had a more diverse mix of electricity generation than Australia, a situation that is still true today. While gas is the United States’ largest source of generation at 38%, coal is the largest source of generation in Australia at 56%. The risks of relying on such a polluting fuel source for such a large amount of Australia’s electricity will only increase as the world decarbonises.
  • A core driver of the decline in United States coal generation has been the large fall in the price of gas. This is the complete opposite of the situation in Australia, where gas prices have skyrocketed in recent years.
  • The total amount of electricity generation has barely changed in the United States over the last decade – down just slightly (0.2%). In the last five years alone, Australia’s total electricity generation has increased by 4%. 
  • The United States has a number of legacy nuclear power stations, built in previous decades and increasingly ageing. This means that the United States gets 37% of its electricity from non-greenhouse gas emitting power sources*, despite only 18% coming from renewable energy sources, like wind, solar and hydro. Australia does not have any nuclear power stations and we get slightly more of our electricity from renewables than the United States (21%). 

If the trends of the past decade are anything to go by, the United States will completely phase out coal generation by the early 2030s.** For Australia to do the same will require a much more rapid phase out of coal than is currently planned.  

Next week’s post will look at coal generation in more detail across America’s fifty states. 

All data on electricity generation in the United States was calculated from the United States Energy Information Administration’s Electricity Data Browser.

Data on electricity generation used in this post was calculated from the Federal Government’s Australian Energy Statistics – Table O, released in May 2020.

*Nuclear power stations do produce toxic waste, but not in the form of greenhouse gases.

** Past performance is not necessarily a reliable indicator of future performance, to repurpose the super fund disclaimer.

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Electricity generation in Australia, Part 4: NSW and VIC

This is the fourth and final part of a series looking at electricity generation in Australia. You can also read parts one, two and three.

This post will provide an overview of electricity generation in New South Wales and Victoria over the last five years.

New South Wales:

New South Wales201520182019Change from
2015 to 2019
Black coal80.5%78.8%76.8%-3.7%
Wind2.5%4.3%6%3.5%
Hydro5.4%6.9%4.7%0.7%
Small-scale
solar PV
2%3.3%4.2%2.2%
Natural gas7.3%3.1%4.1%-3.2%
Large-scale
solar PV
0.3%1.5%2.3%2%
Biomass1.5%1.6%1.6%0.1%
Oil products0.4%0.5%0.5%0.1%
Total
renewable
11.8%17.5%18.7%6.9%
Change in 
total 
generation
from 2015 
to 2019
8.6%

New South Wales* is the most coal dependent state in Australia, with black coal providing 77% of the state’s electricity generation. New South Wales is also the least reliant on gas of the mainland states, at 4%.

Almost 19% of the state’s electricity is from renewable energy, including 6% wind, 5% hydro, 4% rooftop solar and 2% large-scale solar. Biomass provides almost 2%. Overall, the state generates 9% more electricity now than it did in 2015.

New South Wales has had the most stable electricity supply make-up over the last five years, symptomatic of a lack of support for the renewable energy industry until very recently. The biggest changes have been the 3.7% decrease in coal and the 3.5% increase in wind. 

Total renewable energy generation in New South Wales bounces around year-to-year due to the state’s relatively high proportion of hydro generation. Hydro generation is heavily influenced by rainfall, which is variable.

From 2018 to 2019, wind and solar generation increased by 3.4% – a sizeable increase not far behind Victoria and Queensland. But total renewable energy generation increased by just 1.2%. The wind and solar increase was partly cancelled out by a 2.2% decline in hydro generation, due to low rainfall.

Conversely, there has been heavy rainfall in the first half of 2020, so it is probable that hydro will drive a sizeable increase in total renewable energy this year, even if wind and solar do not increase by much. 

So when analysing the renewable energy transition in New South Wales, it is best to exclude hydro generation to get a more accurate picture of the situation. 

Big changes loom in New South Wales. The state has the oldest coal power station fleet in the country including the 48-year old Liddell power station, which will shut during 2022 and 2023. The state government has also begun a process to enable a massive increase in renewable energy projects in the years to come. Clearly the stability of recent years is coming to an end.

Victoria:

Victoria201520182019Change from
2015 to 2019
Brown coal85.4%75.8%70.2%-15.2%
Wind5.9%9.7%11.4%5.5%
Natural gas3.1%6.3%8.3%5.2%
Small-scale
solar PV
1.7%3.5%4.6%2.9%
Hydro2.4%2.4%2%-0.4%
Biomass1.3%1.6%1.7%0.4%
Large-scale
solar PV
0%0.4%1.6%1.6%
Oil products0.2%0.4%0.4%0.2%
Total
renewable
11.3%17.6%21.2%9.9%
Change in 
total 
generation
from 2015 
to 2019
-15.7%

Victoria sources a bit over two-thirds of its electricity generation from brown coal – it is the only state in Australia that burns brown coal. Wind energy is the second largest source of electricity at 11%, with rooftop solar providing 5%, hydro 2% and biomass and large-scale solar each providing almost 2%. Gas supplies 8%.

Victoria’s electricity sector has been turbulent in recent years. Victoria is the only state in Australia where overall electricity generation has declined over the past five years, down by almost 16%. This is primarily due to the sudden closure in 2017 of Hazelwood, Australia’s oldest and most polluting coal power station, which came just months after its owners announced the closure. 

This sent shockwaves throughout the electricity sector, which was unprepared for such a sudden withdrawal of electricity supply. This led to an increase in generation from all other energy sources (except hydro) while Victoria became increasingly reliant on importing electricity at times of high electricity demand from South Australia, Tasmania and to a lesser extent New South Wales.

Ironically, the supply impacts of Hazelwood’s closure have been compounded by climate change. Increasingly extreme heat waves in recent summers have driven up electricity demand whilst causing major breakdowns in Victoria’s remaining ageing coal power stations. Witness the enforced blackouts across parts of Melbourne in January 2019, when several of the state’s coal units broke down due to the extreme heat.

Victoria has a relatively high proportion of renewable energy at 21%, with strong increases in both wind and solar generation over the last five years. Wind and solar generation will increase further in the next couple of years as Victoria is currently the renewable energy investment capital of Australia, with more new projects scheduled to connect over the next 12 months than in any other state. Unfortunately, this also means that Victoria is suffering most acutely from onerous grid connection requirements on new renewable energy projects.

While the state is on track to exceed 50% renewable energy by 2030, Victoria continues to be grossly unprepared for another coal closure. I continue to think that an early full or partial closure of the Yallourn coal power station within the next five years is far more likely than generally appreciated ……but that is a topic for another post.

Data on electricity generation used in this post was calculated from the Federal Government’s Australian Energy Statistics – Table O, released in May 2020.

* For electricity generation purposes, the ACT is included in the total for New South Wales. The ACT has relatively little electricity generation within its borders but the local government purchases renewable energy to supply 100% of the ACT’s electricity consumption.