(Image credit: Greg Goebel via Wikipedia)
In the US, there is new investment into the declining coal industry as America’s leading power producer, which is now dominated by natural gas, accounting for 34% of the country’s electricity. To put that into perspective, as of 2016 coal produces 30% of US power followed by nuclear at 20%, renewables (solar, wind, hydro, etc.) at 15% and petroleum at 1%, according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA).
There are several reasons why coal-fired power plants are in decline, with the foremost being pollution- burning coal is responsible for 42% of mercury emissions in the US, with the fleet producing 45,676 pounds in 2014 alone according to the EPA. It also creates 3.1-million tons of sulfur dioxide (acid rain), 1.5-million tons of nitrogen oxides (lung irritants) and 197,286 tons of particulate matter or soot. It is also responsible for producing other harmful substances such as lead, arsenic and carbon monoxide, making it bad for both the environment and humans.
Another detrimental impact resulting from burning coal is the release of greenhouse gases- primarily carbon dioxide and methane, which contributes profoundly to the issue of global warming. Out of all the dangers of using coal to generate power, global warming is the most harmful, long-term and irreversible. The effects of global warming results in severe consequences to the planet- rising temperatures and rising sea levels will help drive intense storms and drought along with the extinction of many species of animals as their natural habitats become inhabitable. According to a 2015 study from the Carnegie Institute for Science, the emissions from burning a lump of coal affects the climate 100,000-times greater than the heat it produces, and the heat that’s trapped by those emissions can be felt within several months of it being burned.
East-Central China covered in a layer of smog in November of 2004; produced by vehicle pollution, coal-fired power plants and home heating. (Image credit: NASA)
Pre-2016, the EPA enacted the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act to limit the amount of emissions coal plants could release into the environment based upon their wattage output or efficiency, which the national average ranges to be around 32 to 42% for coal while natural gas hovers between 32 to 38% and nuclear at 38%. Those percentages are low when compared to hydro-electric, which ranges from a staggering 85 to 90%, according to data from Bright Hub Engineering. That being said, most coal plants are required to install filters to limit the amount pollutants that enter the environment or suffer penalties and fines, which are outlined in both Acts mentioned earlier.
It’s widely known that the Trump administration believe global warming to be a trend rather than a humanmade occurrence, which resulted in the US pulling out of the Paris Climate Accords early last year. Combined with references of removing ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’ from governmental agencies, and the appointment of Scott Pruitt (climate change skeptic) to head the EPA, those environmental protection Acts (including the Stream Protection Act) are in danger of being repealed to favor coal production and processing. In fact, there are 60 environmental rules that are or in the process of being repealed in the efforts to promote the increased use of fossil fuels, based on research findings from the Columbia Law School and Harvard Law School.
The US has roughly 3.9-trillion short tons of coal reserves, enough to last for 283 years. (Image credit: CSIRO via Wikipedia)
Environmental impact point’s aside; it becomes clear why the US is looking to power its grid with coal. It is estimated the US sits on approximately 3.9-trillion short tons (2,000 pounds) of coal, enough to last 283 years. EIA projections show coal becoming cheaper over natural gas in the near future based on current trends, with the most current data showing natural gas averaged $21.30 per MWh (Miliwatt hour) with coal ranging between $21 and $23 per MWh and is set to fall.
Even though those prices are expected to drop, a large number of coal plants in the US have or supposed to be retired from the fleet, some of which have already been reconfigured for natural gas or have closed outright. An estimated 25,000 to 60,000 megawatts generated from coal plants are expected to be retired from service, and the numbers continue to grow as more utilities favor natural gas and renewable energy sources.
Retired coal units based on private, merchant and regulated entities from 2007 to 2016. (Image credit: Kleinman Center for Energy Policy)
Coal-fired power plants have been on a steady decline over the last decade due in part to the Obama administration’s strict EPA regulations. Utilities found it to be more cost effective to convert their plants from coal in favor of natural gas due to those rules and more continue to shutter their doors. To put the numbers of closed plants into perspective- from 2007 to 2016, 531 coal plants (representing 55.6GW) were retired, nearly one every 15 days according to the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy.
If we use the Kleinman report as a model and apply it to the question of whether or not the US should increase investments into coal-based power plants, the utilities have given us the answer with a resounding no. Even China (the world’s largest consumer of coal) is switching over to renewables at an increased rate, vowing to spend $360-billion over the next two years on renewable power sources as an effort to improve the country’s air quality, which caused 366,000 premature deaths in 2013 alone, according to a report from US and Chinese scientists. With all of the studies, reports, and projections, with the utilities already heavily invested in renewable energy sources, the returns will never be worth the investment when it comes to coal-produced power.
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