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Slow Burn - More Coal-Fired Power Plants Closing on Uncompetitive Economics

Gas-fired power generation in the U.S. has been making impressive gains lately and that trend looks likely to continue. Power demand is growing quickly and generation fueled by cheap natural gas is taking an ever-increasing market share of the new and existing load from more expensive generators like coal and nuclear, which is leading significant numbers of those plants to shut down. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) earlier this year forecast that combined-cycle, gas-fired generation capacity could rise by 6.1 GW between now and 2020, which ­— if fully called upon — would equate to roughly 1 Bcf/d of gas demand. That growth would displace some older gas-fired generation but also fill the void left by retiring coal-fired and nuclear power generators — two sectors EIA expects to decline over the next couple of years by 14.1 GW and 1.7 GW, respectively. What’s more, surging gas production and rapidly filling pipeline expansions in recent months suggest that gas-fired generation demand may be growing even faster than expected. Today, we take a look at how gas generation has been besting coal-fired plants on fuel costs in recent years, and at the string of nuclear and coal-fired generators that are being permanently retired.

U.S. natural gas consumption by the power generation sector — also known as power burn — is a familiar topic in the RBN blogosphere. Recently, in Changes in Latitudes, we highlighted how the growth of gas-fired electricity generation in Florida has spurred the development of new gas pipeline capacity that can bring in supply from as far away as the Marcellus Shale region. Also, in Atomic, we looked at how declines in nuclear power equated to gains for the gas-fired generation sector. And, a while back in More, More, More (U.S. Gas Demand), we examined how the Obama administration’s now-stalled Clean Power Plan (CPP) would have boosted gas demand for electricity generation.

Today we begin with a quick recap of gas demand in the power sector. In the 1990s, power burn climbed to new heights, spurred by lower (albeit volatile) gas prices. Between 1997 and 2017, gas consumption by the U.S. power sector more than doubled, from 12.6 Bcf/d to 25.9 Bcf/d (left graph in Figure 1). Meanwhile, annual coal demand from the U.S. power sector continued to rise alongside gas, peaking in 2007 at just over one billion short tons (right graph). As the Shale Revolution ramped up, however, coal demand fell — to only 664 million short tons in 2017.

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