The percentage of coal-fired generation in the U.S. electricity mix will continue to decline, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) said May 9, with gas-fired generation accounting for at least 40% of the nation’s power this summer and output from renewables continuing to rise.
EIA’s latest Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO) said coal-fired units will produce only about 25% of the nation’s electricity this summer, as renewables including solar, wind, and hydropower take more market share. EIA said renewables will supply nearly a quarter of the power needed in Western states this summer.
The agency said nuclear power, which supplies about 19% of the nation’s electricity, will continue at that level at least through 2020. EIA forecasts that renewables will produce about 18% of U.S. power this year, rising to about 20% next year. The agency said it expects wind generation will surpass hydropower output this year for the first time, taking over the top spot for renewables.
The EIA report comes two weeks after the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) reported that data shows renewable energy—including hydro, biomass, wind, solar, and geothermal—in April for the first time generated more electricity in the U.S. than coal-fired power plants. IEEFA analyst Dennis Wamsted said Texas is an example of a state where renewables have taken the top spot in generation, noting that “wind and solar generation topped coal’s output in the first quarter of 2019, the first time that has happened on a quarterly basis.”
Reliability and Resiliency Concerns
The retirement of coal plants, which for years have provided most of the nation’s power generation, has fostered concern about the reliability and resiliency of the U.S. electricity grid. Energy Secretary Rick Perry, during testimony Thursday before a House subcommittee in Washington, D.C., said the Trump administration wants to spend a half-billion dollars next year on fossil fuel research and development. The administration and the Department of Energy have discussed support for new, more technologically advanced coal-fired power plants, with Perry saying DOE’s goal is to “increase the resiliency and reliability” of the power grid.
New technologies are being implemented, particularly in Asia, to make coal-fired plants more efficient while reducing emissions.
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which oversees the grid in most of that state, on May 8 warned that continued “above-normal” growth in electricity demand could require it to enter Energy Emergency Alert (EEA) status to maintain system reliability this summer, in part due to the retirement of baseload coal plants. ERCOT President and CEO Bill Magness on Wednesday said, “ERCOT is prepared to use the tools and procedures that are in place to maintain system reliability during tight conditions.”
An analyst with EIA said the trend of declining coal output, and increased use of natural gas and renewables for power generation, is supported by economics. EIA analyst Stacy Macintyre said utilities would pay about 3% more for their coal supply this summer, and about 12% less for natural gas, than a year ago.
More Coal Retirements
The Sierra Club on May 9 noted that two more coal plants announced their retirements this week: the 364-MW C.D. McIntosh plant in Lakeland, Florida, and Kennecott Utah Copper’s plant in Magna, Utah, where the 75-MW Unit 4 had powered the company’s local mining operations. Three other coal units at the Kennecott plant were shut down in 2016.
The Sierra Club said the closures of the Florida and Utah plants would mean 289 coal plants have been closed or announced closure since the group began its Beyond Coal campaign in 2002, and also noted they bring the total of coal units retired during the Trump administration to 51, despite efforts by the administration to save coal-fired generation.
Mary Anne Hitt, senior director of the Beyond Coal campaign, in a statement said, “The latest coal retirement announcements make one thing clear—our nation keeps moving beyond coal, thanks to leadership from states and cities. From Florida to Utah, Americans are turning away from coal to clean energy, because renewable power is cheaper and doesn’t pollute our air, water, and climate.”
Michael Bloomberg, the United Nations Special Envoy for Climate Action, and former mayor of New York City, in a statement said: “Despite the Trump administration’s efforts to prop up unhealthy and unprofitable coal-fired power plants, they are still closing as fast as ever. The American people know that moving to cleaner, cheaper energy is good for their health and their pocketbooks—and for our environment. This milestone shows that America continues to move Beyond Coal no matter what anyone in Washington says.”
Meanwhile, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) on May 9 adopted regulations that require all the state’s power plants to meet stringent emissions limits. The rules support the phase-out of the state’s remaining coal-fired power plants by 2020. The state has just two operating coal plants: Cayuga Station, a two-unit, 323-MW plant in Lansing, and the 675-MW Kintigh Generating Station (also known as Somerset), in Somerset. Both plants were purchased in 2016 by Riesling Power, a subsidiary of Beowulf Energy, after the bankruptcy of former owner AES.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo earlier this year said he wants the state to have carbon-free power generation by 2040.
—Darrell Proctor is a POWER associate editor (@DarrellProctor1, @POWERmagazine).