What's Up With Coal?

Is its decline a result of Federal policy or of cheap natural gas?

2 min read
What's Up With Coal?

Jason Plautz of InsideClimate News has an interesting and relevant article this week drawing attention to recent studies of why coal's role in U.S. electricity generation is declining, an issue that has come to have an outsized place in the presidential campaign. One such study, from the Brattle Group, finds that 77 GW of coal generation will be retired by 2017 under very strict environmental policies; in a somewhat laxer regime, 59 GW will be retired.

Yes, that's right: whether Federal policy is strict or relaxed, 59-77 GW of coal generation--the equivalent roughly of 59-77 nuclear power plants--will be taken out of service in the next five years. What is more, says the Brattle Group, its estimate of retirements has grown by 25 MW since it previously reported on the issue two years ago, and that is almost entirely because of the revolution in unconventional gas and the precipitous drop in natural gas prices.

By comparison, Plautz observes, regulations issued by the Environmental Protection Agency have had a lesser impact on coal because their future is so uncertain: Two key EPA pollution rules—the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule and the Boiler Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT) Rule—"are stuck in legal and regulatory limbo, and their impact on industry has actually lessened."

To be sure, those rules are not going to be stuck in regulatory limbo forever. The cross-state rule first was formulated in George Bush's administration and may, if things turn out that way, finally meet with Federal court approval in a Romney administration. Whether it is somewhat stricter or laxer, it will make burning coal even more unattractive relative to natural gas. As for MACT, the EPA claims that in its current guise it would produce economic and health benefits amounting to ten times the cost of its implementation, according to Plautz. It too, when it finally clears all hurdles, will make coal--or shall we say reveal coal as?—still less of a good deal.

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This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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