Why Can't We Be Friends? - Widely Varied Interests Coalesce Against Coal and Nuclear Bailouts

There has been a lot of acrimony and polarization among the natural gas industry, the environmental community, various consumer advocates, industrial energy users, organized power markets and renewables developers in recent years. However, the ongoing government efforts to prop up the power sector’s coal-fired and nuclear generators have succeeded in uniting all those disparate interests into a single voice saying a single word: No! Today, we discuss the history of the administration’s planned support of coal and nuclear, the unusually unified reaction to it from groups that are more often at odds with each other, and some underlying assumptions about natural gas that aren’t — well — how the gas industry says it works.

The past few years have seen big shifts in the share of U.S. electricity generation coming from various sources. For example, coal-fired power plants, which provided 48% of the 4.1 billion megawatt-hours (MWh) of electricity produced in 2008, accounted for only 30% of the 4.0 billion MWh produced in 2017 (blue line in Figure 1), according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA). And, with the huge run-up in U.S. natural gas production since 2008 (with its resulting downward pressure on prices) — and the implementation of new environmental regulations, including the Mercury & Air Toxics Standards (MATS) rule, which made coal-fired power less economic — the mix turned upside-down. Natural gas-fired power plants, which 10 years ago generated only 21% of the power produced in the U.S., accounted for 32% last year (orange line), edging out coal for the second year in a row. We’ve discussed the competition between coal and gas several times (see This Gas Is Made for Burnin’ and Part 1 and Part 2 of “Torn Between Two Fossil Fuels”). We’ve also looked at the many challenges facing the nuclear power sector (gray line shows its flat share of U.S. power generation) — high maintenance and safety-compliance costs for existing nuclear plants and gargantuan cost overruns for new ones (see Atomic) — and at the inroads being made by wind and solar power, especially in states like California that are taking aggressive steps to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions (see California Sunset).

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