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Coal may be down but utilities need to begin planning a divestment from natural gas

image credit: Courtesy EIA
Christopher Neely's picture
Independent Local News Organization

Journalist for nearly a decade with keen interest in local energy policies for cities and national efforts to facilitate a renewable revolution. 

  • Member since 2017
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  • Sep 24, 2020

Coal has submitted to renewable sources in electricity production in the U.S., the peak of an anti-coal campaign that really began heating up at the start of the 2010s. This is not news, at least it is not unexpected. The country's leading voices in clean energy have been working to beat back the hard, black lumps of fossil fuel enemy for a long time. With significant advancements in clean energy and its cost, coal has long been on its way out and activists across the country seem to now be claiming victory.

Quietly, as coal has taken the beating and attracted much of the ire, natural gas, the less tangible fossil fuel, has apparently won over the hearts and wallets of America's energy producers and utilities. On July 27, the U.S. set a new record as natural gas represented 45% of the country's energy generation portfolio. Nearly half! Between January and July of this year, natrual gas's portion of generation rarely dipped below 40% and, many times, eclipsed it. According to a recent Forbe's article, in 2001, between January and May, natural gas accounted for 15% of energy generation in the U.S.  

A three-fold increase in reliance on natural gas in the last 20 years is not great. Yes, natural gas's CO2 emissions are about 50-60% that of coal and oil; however, this year, natural gas represents nearly double coal's portion of electricity source. Mining for natural gas, which has picked up during the shale oil revolution, emits significant amounts of methane, which is better than CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere. 

LIke renewables, the cost of natural gas has dropped considerably. At one point, there was too much natural gas being produced and not enough buyers. With coal trending downwards, it's time for utilities to step up and squeezing natural gas into a much smaller portion of their energy portfolios. It's not an easy task considering how cost-effective natural gas can be for a company; however, utilities need to stop celebrating the divestment from coal and begin committing to shrinking their reliance on natural gas. 

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 24, 2020

Christopher - most telling is the drop of renewables from 20% to 12% (?).

All part of the American Petroleum Institute's plan: 1) Shut down coal plants 2) Shut down nuclear plants 3) Shut down renewables  (except for a few pretty windmills spinning in the breeze, to use for commercial footage) 4) Dominate electricity production with fossil-fuel methane ("natural gas") for the foreseeable future.

Anyone who doesn't recognize this trend, who favors the replacement of carbon-free nuclear with renewables, is an accomplice to the crime.

Xisto Vieira Filho's picture
Xisto Vieira Filho on Sep 28, 2020

One has to be very careful  before taking decisions like that . To go to a completely " clean energy matrix " we have to solve adequately problems like flexibility, adequacy, stability , voltage and frequency control, power system  restoration, and so forth.

Several systems are operating in reasonable conditions today due to the presence of traditional generation and transmission systems that can support several types of contingencies.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Sep 28, 2020

Do you think there's a specific limit on how far we can push it though-- build out the clean energy replacements in a way that cuts away at the natural gas dominance (since it was always supposed to be a 'bridge' fuel) until we reach that floor level where gas is still providing the baseload needed. Presumably getting even close to there will take a number of years, and by then numerous of those adequacy problems will likely have been solved. But if we don't start building out the clean energy now because of concerns of what will happen once we reach that point, we may wait too long and regret those delays. 

With that line of thinking, what do you think is the most reasonable level gas can become of the mix with what tech/knowledge we have today without risking those adequacy issues? 

Xisto Vieira Filho's picture
Xisto Vieira Filho on Jan 12, 2022

You raised some interesting points, Matt. But I think that the issue here is a little bit different . The real issue should be: who will win the " race ": the renewables achieving capabilities of assuring stability, controllable reseves, adequacy to the power system, or the gas fired plants achieving minimization of emissions through CCUS or use of green hydrogen ? If the second goes first, we can then think of an electric matrix without emissions , but maintaining system security.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Jan 13, 2022

I would not discount the possibility of technology innovations allowing combined-cycle plants to achieve CO2 emissions that are too low to worry about. May be a lot closer than you think and coming from a completely unexpected direction.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Sep 28, 2020

Natural gas reliably provides reasonably priced and reasonably clean energy with minor needs for land. Renewable energy cannot match these qualities. With out a doubt, gas provides consumers with more money in their pockets, as opposed to lining the pockets of the green energy mafia.

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