The Untited States’ electricity could be much cleaner, and cheaper, if it would embrace natural gas over coal, argues Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in the FT today.
The U.S. is awash in natural gas, which is much cleaner than coal. Gas production capacity is 450 GW, while coal is only 336. But the U.S. squanders its gas.
Presently, utilities are generally forced to dispatch coal-fired electricity ahead of natural-gas fired electricity. This is making coal the dominant energy source. Flip the regulation, and suddenly, 3/4 of the coal plants are shut down, and we can “save a small fortune in energy costs.”
…Around 920 US coal plants – 78 per cent of the total – are small (generating less than half a gigawatt), antiquated and horrendously inefficient. Their average age is 45 years, with many over 75. They tend to be located amidst dense populations and in poor neighbourhoods to lethal effect.
These ancient plants burn 20 per cent more coal per megawatt hour than modern large coal units and are 60 to 75 per cent less fuel-efficient than combined cycle gas plants. They account for only 21 per cent of America’s electric power but almost half the sector’s emissions. Properly assessed, the costs of operation, maintenance, capital improvements and repair of these antiquated facilities make them far more expensive to run than natural gas plants. However, irrational energy sector pricing structures make it possible for many plant operators to pass those costs to the public and make choices based exclusively on fuel costs, which in the case of coal appear deceptively cheap because of massive subsidies.
Mothballing or throttling back these plants would mean huge savings to the public and eliminate the need for more than 350m tons of coal, including all 30m tons harvested through mountain-top removal. Their closure would reduce US mercury emissions by 20-25 per cent, dramatically cut deadly particulate matter and the pollutants that cause acid rain, and slash America’s CO2 from power plants by 20 per cent – an amount greater than the entire reduction envisaged in the first years of the pending climate change legislation at a fraction of the cost.
To quickly gain further economic and environmental advantages, the larger, newer coal plants that remain in operation should be required to co-fire with natural gas. Many of these plants are already connected to gas pipelines and can easily be adapted to burn gas as 15 to 20 per cent of their fuel. Such co-firing dramatically reduces forced outages and maintenance costs and can be the most cost effective way to reduce CO2 emissions.
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