Coal Use Decreases, NatGas Increases – Renewables? Irrelevant

New numbers released by IHS CERA show how far coal has fallen as the fuel of choice to generate electricity in the U.S., and how high natural gas has risen to take its place. Here are some interesting statistics:

The share of U.S. electricity that comes from coal is forecast to fall below 40 percent for the year — the lowest level since the government began collecting this data in 1949. Four years ago, it was 50 percent. By the end of this decade, it is likely to be near 30 percent.

"The peak has passed," says Jone-Lin Wang, head of Global Power for the energy research firm IHS CERA.

Natural gas will be used to produce 29 percent of the country’s electricity this year, up from 20 percent in 2008. Nuclear accounts for 20 percent. Hydroelectric, wind, solar and other renewables make up the rest.*

Why the change from coal to natural gas? Much of it is due to tougher pollution rules from the Obama administration (Obama’s “war on coal”), which makes operating coal burning plants far more expensive than it used to be. “Cheap” coal is no longer cheap. Plus, natural gas has come down in price drastically over the past four years due to the rapidly expanding supply from shale gas drilling and the miracle of hydraulic fracturing.

Power plants that burn coal produce more than 90 times as much sulfur dioxide, five times as much nitrogen oxide and twice as much carbon dioxide as those that run on natural gas, according to the Government Accountability Office, the regulatory arm of Congress. Sulfur dioxide causes acid rain; nitrogen oxides cause smog; and carbon dioxide is a so-called greenhouse gas that traps heat in the atmosphere.

A pair of clean air rules enacted by the Environmental Protection Agency over the past year tightens limits on power-plant emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, and place new limits on mercury, a poison found in coal. This will force between 32 and 68 of the dirtiest and oldest coal plants in the country to close over the next three years as the rules go into effect, according to an AP survey of power plant operators conducted late last year.

Coal was hit with a potentially bigger environmental blow in March when the EPA issued guidelines that could limit greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants as early as 2013. Once the guidelines go into effect, no coal plants will be built unless utilities can develop a cost-effective way to capture carbon dioxide, analysts say. That technology has been slow to develop and is very expensive.*

No new coal plants will be built after this year. No new plants, no new demand and as old plants are shut down or converted, demand will continue to drop.

Just to recap those IHS numbers…As of right today, the sources of of energy that produce the country’s electricity are: coal 40% (and falling); natural gas 29% (and rising); nuclear 20% (and staying even); everything else, including so-called renewable/alternative energies 11%.

Do you spot a little problem the “dump all fossil fuels now, fossil fuels are evil” crowd has with something called reality? The reality is that fossil fuels power nearly 3/4 of the electricity in this country. It is an utter pipe dream, something beyond reality to think we can simply “conserve more” or “subsidize more” and use renewables to generate all of our electrical supplies—even within the next 30-40 years—as many in the anti-drilling movement proclaim.

*Associated Press (Jun 13, 2012) – US coal use falling fast; utilities switch to gas