If you think one of America's goals should be to decarbonize electricity generation, this must have seemed like a good week. Perhaps it's due to the spring weather or the fact that Earth Day is around the corner, but energy journalists and media organizations seemed quite optimistic about the transition to a less carbon-intensive energy economy.
Three posts in particular caught my attention:
- “Cheap natural gas, Obama’s rules and green opposition are hammering the nation’s most abundant power source,” Politico wrote in a post entitled “The fall of coal.”
- “Coal is dying and it’s never coming back,” proclaimed a Mother Jones headline touting coal retirements resulting from the EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards.
- “Fossil fuels just lost the race against renewables,” read another exuberant headline, this time from Bloomberg. The article referred to the fact that renewable energy capacity additions are beginning to outpace new fossil fuel generation additions. The post was circulated widely throughout clean energy and environmentalist circles this week, so much so that it earned a Vox rejoinder pointing out its flaws.
The narrative of a doomsday scenario for coal while renewables growth explodes is by no means restricted to one side of the political spectrum. Robert Murray, owner of the largest coal company in the nation, said last year that we are witnessing the “absolute destruction of the United States coal industry.”
“It isn’t coming back,” he said. “It’s permanent. Virtually all of it is permanent. And if you think it’s coming back, you don’t understand the business. Or you’re smoking dope.”
These narratives are powerful because they are true—at least in part. Renewables are indeed expected to add more capacity than fossil fuels in the U.S. this year, and coal’s share of the generation pie — now just under 40% — is expected to keep declining.
But the focus on growth rates for renewables — and rates of decline for coal — are inadequate when considering the broader decarbonization of the power system. Put simply, those rates don’t matter as much as the regulations and policies that govern the electricity industry — and a new report from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) demonstrates it.
The EIA's Annual Energy Outlook
On Tuesday, the EIA released its Annual Energy Outlook for 2015, a huge document with forecasts for American energy use across multiple sectors through 2040. Naturally, the electricity generation estimates are what we care about here.
It's important to note the EIA sees the world as it is, not as it might be. Consequently, the estimates do not take into account the expected impacts of the EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan, which is set to be finalized this summer. The EIA plans to release another report in May that will project the impact of the pending climate rules.
The fact that the EIA left out the carbon regulations earned the report ridicule from those in the renewables industry, but it also offers the industry a special opportunity, one that may not be around much longer: A chance to see what the U.S. fuel mix would look like without the EPA carbon regulations. A world where the Clean Power Plan gets struck down in court or a future president repeals it, for instance.
In its reference case — “a business-as-usual trend estimate, given known technology and technological and demographic trends,” according to the report — the EIA projects that U.S. power generation will still be dominated by fossil fuels. In 2040, the agency estimates, coal will still provide 34% of the nation’s electricity, down from 39% today. Natural gas would provide 31%, up from 27% today.
While these estimates don’t take into account the Clean Power Plan, they do factor in the EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards — rules that are expected to push about 60,000 MW of coal-fired generation offline in the next few years. Likewise, they also account for expected renewables growth, yet renewables are only forecasted to account for 18% of generation in 2040, up from 13% today.
Without more carbon-intensive plants retiring, renewables have a lot of ground to make up to get on equal footing with fossil fuels.
EIA has lowballed renewable energy forecasts in the past, only to be proven wrong by the speed of cost reductions and adoption rates. That could be the case here as well. But even if it is, it doesn’t seem likely that the agency is so far off that we would see renewable energy become a larger part of the fuel mix than coal or gas by 2040, as many environmentalists want.
Even if you double the EIA’s estimate of 5% renewables growth as part of the national fuel mix over the next 25 years, that only leaves you at 23% renewables by 2040. If you triple it, the U.S. would be at 28%. That would still trail behind the estimates for both coal and natural gas, and, more importantly for environmentalists, is still likely not enough to play a productive part in keeping warming at 2 degrees Celsius or less, the level that most scientists agree is necessary to escape the most severe climate consequences.
Even when EIA takes into account multiple market scenarios for renewables and fossil fuels, the expected 2040 fuel mix is still dominated by fossil fuels, including a lot of coal.
What the EIA’s forecasts show is that, barring truly unexpected, astronomical growth in renewable energy over the next 25 years, the projected renewables growth alone will not be enough to significantly decarbonize our grid. In fact, in their reference case, EIA projects that greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector will barely change by 2040. The IPCC estimates that to keep us under 2 degrees Celsius of warming, the world would need to cut greenhouse gas emissions 40-70% by midcentury, and that the U.S. is still the world’s second-biggest emitter.
The reason for this comes down to coal power, the most carbon-intensive of our generation sources. Without a program like the Clean Power Plan — a regulatory regime designed to mitigate for the harms of carbon pollution from the power sector — the EIA projections show that utilities will likely continue to purchase and generate a major portion of their electricity from coal plants well into the middle parts of the century.
Because coal provides cheap and reliable baseload power, many utilities will continue to use it even as they invest in more renewables. In fact, the industry often argues, large centralized generation plants like coal and nuclear facilities are essential to the 21st century grid because they provide a backup for when renewables aren’t operating.
To be sure, there are things that could happen, outside of major regulatory changes, that could help decarbonize the grid more before 2040 and prove the EIA’s estimates wrong. Significant growth in energy storage could help integrate more renewables and lessen the need for centralized generation. Utilities could also begin to rely on other baseload resources, such as a combination of wind and natural gas, as some are already doing. Or there could be a breakthrough in carbon sequestration or coal gasification technology that allows coal plants to operate in a cleaner manner.
But from the standpoint of the national fuel mix, even all those possibilities may have little impact. Storage is on a solid growth trajectory, but the technology is still in the nascent stages of deployment throughout the nation, and it remains to be seen whether it can displace baseload generation. And American utilities, for better or worse, have largely turned away from sequestration and gasification. Utilities worried about stranded assets aren’t likely to voluntarily take profitable coal plants offline if they aren’t forced to. Some may even pursue direct taxpayer support for coal plants as they become increasingly uneconomic, arguing that they are essential for reliability, as Duke, AEP and FirstEnergy are doing in Ohio today.
All this should lead us to one conclusion: Without the Clean Power Plan (or something like it), Robert Murray and the other coal pessimists are wrong. We are not witnessing the death of coal power in the United States — in fact, its life will be preserved for at least another generation.
There aren't reliable forecasts of what the national fuel mix might look like under the Clean Power Plan, because it's yet to be finalized. But Navigant Research estimates that, based on the proposed rule, 45 GW of coal generation will be retired, on top of 62 GW of coal retirements already baked into the cake by the MATS rule (and included in the EIA forecast). That won't eliminate coal power in the United States, but it will be a significant chunk of carbon-intensive generation going offline.
If the EIA’s report teaches us anything, it’s that if our goal is to decarbonize our power system within an acceptable climactic timeframe, today's regulations and policies are inadequate. Even with the MATS standards, new policies and regulations — whether it be the CPP, a carbon tax, or another solution — are needed to significantly decarbonize the electricity system. Simply relying on renewables to outpace other resources and waiting for coal plants to voluntarily retire under current regulatory schemes won’t do it.
The Clean Power Plan will put the U.S. energy system on a path to deeper decarbonization, but like most EPA regulations, it is under attack from the industry it oversees. On Thursday, a three judge panel at the D.C. Circuit Court in Washington heard a combined challenge to the EPA regulations from fossil fuel companies and a coalition of coal-heavy and conservative states. While the judges seemed skeptical of the challenge to the rules, it’s just the beginning of what is sure to be a years-long quest for EPA to prove its authority to regulate carbon pollution — one that’s likely to end at the Supreme Court.
If the Clean Power Plan is struck down and nothing replaces it, we will likely end up with a grid in 2040 that looks much like the one EIA predicts. And that means the U.S. will have made precious little progress in combating climate change through the power system. No matter your opinion on the EPA regulations or climate change, if you’re watching the American energy revolution happen in real time, don’t pay as much attention to that banner headline about coal’s demise or how fast renewables grew last quarter. Watch the court battles over the looming EPA regulations instead.