As Coal Fades to Black, Natural Gas Takes Heat

June 27, 2019

New York Times:

America’s coal-burning power plants are shutting down at a rapid pace, forcing electric utilities to face the next big climate question: Embrace natural gas, or shift aggressively to renewable energy?

Some large utilities, including Xcel Energy in the Upper Midwest, are now planning to sharply cut their coal and gas use in favor of cleaner sources like wind and solar, which have steadily fallen in cost. But in many regions, natural gas continues to dominate, because of its reliability and low prices driven by the fracking boom. Nationwide, energy companies plan to add at least 150 new gas plants and thousands of miles of pipelines in the years ahead.

A rush to build gas-fired plants, even though they emit only half as much carbon pollution as coal, has the potential to lock in decades of new fossil-fuel use right as scientists say emissions need to fall drastically by midcentury to avert the worst impacts of global warming.

“Gas infrastructure that’s built today is going to be with us for 30 years,” said Daniel Cohan, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University.

“But if you look at scenarios that take climate change seriously, that say we need to get to net zero emissions by 2050,” he said, “that’s not going to be compatible with gas plants that don’t capture their carbon.”

At the same time, some utilities are discovering on their own that it can make financial sense to take a more ambitious leap toward renewable energy. 

Last year in Indiana, the Northern Indiana Public Service Company, or Nipsco, opened bidding to outside energy developers and found that adding a mix of wind, solar and batteries would be cheaper than building a new gas plant to replace its retiring coal units. (The company will keep its older gas plants online to fill in gaps when wind and solar aren’t available.) Doing so, the utility estimated, would reduce its emissions 90 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

“We were surprised by that,” said Joe Hamrock, the chief executive of the company that owns the Nipsco. “Renewables in our particular situation were far more competitive than we realized.”

Mr. Hamrock noted that his utility had advantages that others might not have: Its territory sits near land that’s ripe for wind development, making it easier to build new turbines close by without the need for lots of costly new transmission lines. “The answer we got might look very different for someone just 100 miles away,” he said.

Indeed, things look very different nearby in the vast regional grid known as PJM that serves 65 million people from Ohio to New Jersey. There power plants compete in a largely deregulated market and companies are expected to build over 10,000 megawatts of new gas plants by 2024 to take advantage of cheap natural gas from the nearby fracking boom in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. 

“The shale gas revolution has, frankly, caused a delay in the growth of renewables here,” said Stu Bresler, senior vice president for operations and markets at PJM Interconnection, which oversees the system. Wind and solar make up less than 6 percent of the region’s generating capacity, well below the national average.

State legislatures are also increasingly weighing in on which energy sources get built. To date, 29 states have enacted laws that require their utilities to get a certain fraction of their power from wind and solar.

Now, some states are going further. Over the past year, California, Colorado, Maine, Nevada, New Mexico, New York and Washington have all passed laws aimed at getting 100 percent of their electricity from carbon-free sources by midcentury, which would eventually mean phasing out conventional gas plants. 

Yet even utilities that are already shifting more heavily into renewables say that it will be challenging to get rid of gas altogether.

Last year, Xcel Energy, which serves eight states including Colorado and Minnesota, said it would shut down all its remaining coal plants in the years ahead and push to go completely carbon-free by 2050, saying that renewable energy, helped in part by federal subsidies, had fallen so much in price that this was now the cheapest option.

While the utility thinks it can get 80 percent of the way to its emissions goals by 2030 with a mix of wind, solar, batteries and its existing nuclear plants, it will still rely on natural gas to provide the rest of its power and is building a new gas plant in Minnesota to balance out its supply.

Ben Fowke, the chief executive of Xcel, said that getting to 100 percent carbon-free power will likely require new technology that can supplant natural gas as a cost-effective backup fuel. Some possibilities include burning clean hydrogen instead of gas in power plants, developing techniques that enable carbon produced by gas plants to be captured and stored underground, advanced nuclear power or the invention of new energy storage techniques. 

Perfecting that technology would likely require big new investments in research and support from policymakers, he said. “But I’m convinced we can get there.”


2 Responses to “As Coal Fades to Black, Natural Gas Takes Heat”

  1. mboli Says:

    The NIPSCO (Northern Indiana etc.) planning document linked to from this article:

    2018 about 3% of their generation is from wind, with no solar (p. 4)
    2023 about 53% will be wind, solar, and batteries (p. 6)

    That looks like a typo, but they are pretty clear about it. Replacing half of their generation capacity with renewables in five years.

    Apparently this was based on having received about 70 proposals in the wind/solar/battery area in response to an RFP. But they admit this all has to be evaluated.

    This seems very… aspirational.

  2. dumboldguy Says:

    “This is the clearest sign yet that renewable energy has gone mainstream” says Bloomberg.

    Talk about wishful thinking and overreach in graph “interpretation”—–LMAO

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