Will 2013 Be the Year Coal Died?

By Angus Duncan

What was the biggest energy story of 2013 in the United States?  Most observers would point to the vast, unlooked-for quantities of natural gas and oil released by new “fracking” recovery techniques.  National oil production has surged by 30 percent just since 2011.  Five years ago the natural gas industry was looking for sites to import liquefied natural gas (LNG); today it’s flipping those sites around to export the stuff.

But, the real energy story of 2013 may turn out to be the death of coal.

That’s still a little premature, but consider: Ten years ago some 120 new coal power plants were in the siting and financing pipeline. Today, nearly all have been abandoned.

Thirty per cent of existing coal plants, representing nearly 20 percent of U.S. coal generating capacity, have been terminated or announced near-term closure dates.

Coal’s share of U.S. power generation has dropped from 53 percent in 2000 to 37 percent today.

Coal producers are frantically trying to line up overseas customers and coal export facilities to replace their slipping domestic sales, and having little apparent success at either.

While the stock market surges, share prices of coal producers are sagging.

Multiple Factors

Part of the explanation is new, low-cost gas driving coal’s market share down.  Equally important has been the Obama administration’s enforcement of Clean Air Act standards on power plants that had skated around pollution controls for eight years under President Bush.

The 2010 decision to terminate coal combustion at Oregon’s Boardman coal plant (majority-owned by Portland General Electric) played a pivotal role in this revolution. Most of the coal plant actions up to then involved smaller, less efficient, older plants – some dating back to the Truman and Eisenhower years. Boardman was a different bird: middle-aged (30 years), middle-sized (585 megawatts), of better-than-average efficiency (in the upper third of plants nationwide).  But Boardman faced $500 million in required Clean Air Act pollution retrofits, and the risk of more if EPA began regulating carbon emissions.

To the credit of PGE, its state and federal air regulators, the Oregon Public Utility Commission, a small group of environmental stakeholders and a Sierra Club lawsuit, a settlement agreement was reached: invest $50 million to keep the plant operating and in emissions compliance through 2020, then end coal combustion.

Done. Over. No more.

PGE and its customers saved $450 million in compliance costs.  All of us saved another 20 years or more of carbon emissions.

Changes Across the Country

Following on the Boardman decision, utilities across the country have announced closures or fuel conversions of Boardman-class coal plants.

As of last summer, these decisions started looking even better.  In June 2013, President Obama directed his Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to begin regulating, and ramping down, greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants.

PGE still has a share of Montana’s Colstrip coal facility at risk.

PacifiCorp (PAC) and its customers are far more exposed.  In an average year over 60 percent of the power PAC delivers to its Oregon customers comes from coal plants, most of them older than Boardman.

The Oregon Public Utility Commission and PAC stakeholders are now – and rightly — questioning PAC’s retrofit-and-run strategy.  If the plants are shuttered by carbon regulation, any retrofit investments already made will have to be paid off … by the same customers who will be supporting development of clean replacement power sources.

Coal’s star turn on the nation’s energy stage is over.  In the next act plentiful gas will be a role player, not a lead, because of its lower but still substantial emissions issues.  Renewables are becoming cost competitive even before greenhouse gas emissions are figured in. Energy efficiency always was.

It’s an astonishing story.  It might even have a happy ending.Φ

Angus Duncan, of Portland, is president of the Bonneville Environmental Foundation and chair of the Oregon Global Warming Commission. This article originally appeared as a guest editorial in The Oregonian.

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