EIA: Without Clean Power Plan, coal will regain top spot in generation mix

Dive Brief:

  • Coal-fired power is expected to regain its place at the top of the U.S. generation mix in 2019 if the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan is repealed, the U.S. Energy Information Administration noted Tuesday.
  • While low fuel prices helped natural gas generation outpace coal power last year, the agency forecasts in its annual report that coal could retake the top spot by 2019 and hold its position into the 2030s if the carbon regulations for existing power plants are repealed.  
  • That forecast, however, is contingent on expected price trends for other technologies, particularly natural gas, and the EIA cautions that other market or policy changes could impact coal's resurgence.  

Dive Insight:

It was big news, albeit long-predicted, when last year natural gas took over as the nation's top generating fuel. Lower gas prices played a role, as did environmental policies aimed at lowering and greenhouse gas emissions.

Obama's Clean Power Plan took aim at coal plant pollution by designating heat rate improvements for the plants many in the power industry complained were impossible. If it is implemented, coal generation is expected to decline steadily through the 2030s.

But if the Trump administration is successful in repealing them or halting implementation, "there is less incentive to switch from carbon-intensive coal to less carbon-intensive natural gas or carbon-free fuels such as wind and solar," EIA said in a note published this week based on the findings of its Annual Energy Outlook.

If the CPP is repealed, coal could recapture top spot in the generation mix through the 2020s.

A year ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered implementation of the Clean Power Plan be delayed until legal challenges to the regulation have played out.

It is now being considered by the D.C. Circuit Court, but the White House is expected to repeal or halt the regulation even if it is upheld. 

Along with regulation, EIA noted that gas prices remain a significant determinant in the energy mix. Lower prices would result in increased production, and "lead to natural gas-fired electricity generation displacing coal-fired generation," the agency noted. 

If low gas prices increase production (high oil and gas case), EIA expects more coal power to be displaced. The impact may be less than shown, however, because the reference case in the charts includes Clean Power Plan implementation.

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