Gas Crushes Coal

Wind's Contribution a Distant Second

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February 28, 2013 | Michael Shellenberger & Ted Nordhaus

Coal electricity declined by 12.5 percent in 2012, mostly driven by the switch to natural gas, which increased by almost the exact same amount (217 terrawatt-hours) as coal declined (216 TWh), according to new annual numbers released by the US Energy Information Administration.

Wind electricity increased as well — by about one-tenth (20.5 TWh) as much as gas. Solar increased a little more than one-hundredth as much as gas (2.5 TWh).

The figures come at a time when renewable energy advocates have claimed that wind and solar have been responsible for the big declines in coal — claims that do not stand up to scrutiny, according to a new Breakthrough Institute analysis.

Indeed, the new numbers highlight the key difference between gas and solar and wind. Where taxpayers subsidized unconventional gas exploration from 1980 to 2002 to the tune of $10 billion, natural gas in recent years has been replacing coal without subsidies.

Wind and solar, by contrast, remain almost wholly dependent on public support. Uncertainty last year over whether Congress would renew the key wind subsidy meant that less than half as much new wind will be installed in 2013 as was installed in 2012.

Where the problem for wind has been its high cost, the problem for gas is that it has become too cheap. Natural gas production slowed last year in the face of unprofitably low prices caused by overproduction.

This does not mean that subsidies for solar and wind should be cut, only that they should be reformed. Instead of subsidizing the production of electricity from the same old technologies, we need the kind of innovation that allowed natural gas to become cheaper than coal.

— Michael, Ted, Max and Alex


Comments

  • Pundits who are now dancing on the grave of coal need to look at the steep depletion of fracked gas wells and the growing public awareness of the danger they pose to the water supply.  What else can replace coal?  Nuclear is paralyzed by radiation fears and a history of cost overruns.  Hydro is maxed out.  Boutique solutions like wind, solar, and biofuels are not scalable to utility scale baseload generation.  So does anyone have a plan for reviving coal and mitigating its pollution?

    By Wilmot McCutchen on 2013 02 28

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  • Wilmot has hit the nail on the head - exactly right.

    By Max on 2013 03 01

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  • Very important points raised here.

    What is the source / data for the image?

    @_JesseParent

    By Jesse Parent on 2013 03 02

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  • Please Google the following: coal direct chemical looping.

    I can’t explain it so you’ll have to read about it yourself.

    By Mike Foster on 2013 03 04

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  • @ Jesse Parent

    If you actually read the article and follow the hyperlink instead of just looking at the pictures. You’ll answer your own question. :p

    By Justin Templer on 2013 03 07

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  • Although your site treats opponents with respect, I have to challenge you.  Monthly data, not annual data, tells a radically different story.  Since May of 2012, when coal use fell to a historic low of 32.2% of supply, and Natural Gas rose to its historic peak of slightly less, we have seen coal increase 8% and natural gas decrease slightly more.  This is consistent with price, since natural gas has doubled in price since April of 2012. 

    People in the industries, including officials of the coal and natural gas industries believe that the cost of fracking requires a price above $5/mmbtu wholesale.  Some folks think the real cost is over twice that.  Around $5, natural gas is a pariah.  You will do anything you can to reduce your dependence on it.  Around $7, the U.S. economy will start back into the second dip of the Great Recession.

    Personally, I think your happy-go-lucky take on climate is stupid.  You don’t know enough about energy solutions to speak about it the way you do.  You caught a wave, but you can’t stay on top of it if you don’t know your stuff.  I do know my stuff.  .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

    By Ned Ford on 2013 05 17

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About Michael Shellenberger & Ted Nordhaus

Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger are leading global thinkers on energy, climate, security, human development, and politics. They are founders of the Breakthrough Institute and executive editors of Breakthrough Journal.

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