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Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A ripe moment in the fight against climate disruption

new report from The Union of Concerned Scientists suggests that almost a third of U.S. coal-fired power plants could no longer be economically viable and could be retired in the next few years.

The UCS report - Ripe for Retirement - says that 59,000 MW of coal generation could be too costly to operate, and an additional 40,000 MW of coal generation is scheduled to shut down or be converted to another fuel in the next few years.  The combined closure of 99,000 MW of coal capacity would represent nearly one third of the U.S.’ 316,000 MW of coal-fired generation.

Those retirements could reduce CO2 emissions between 9.8 and 16.4 percent, depending on what resource replaces the coal, and provide other significant public health and environmental benefits.

There are two main drivers of this possible outcome: (currently) cheap and abundant natural gas, and stricter federal air pollution standards.

The UCS report says that the retirement of aging coal plants "would create an opportunity to accelerate our nation's transition to a cleaner energy future."  Reuters quotes report co-author Steve Frenkel:

"Regulators should require utility companies to carefully consider whether ratepayers would be better off by retiring old coal plants and boosting electricity generation from natural gas and renewable energy sources like wind. Spending billions to upgrade old coal plants may simply be throwing good money after bad."

Coal-fired generation fell from 42 percent of U.S. electricity in 2011 to about 37 percent in 2012, and natural gas’ share rose from 25% in 2011 to 31 percent this year.  As a consequence, U.S. carbon emissions fell to their lowest level in 20 years.  However, in 2013, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) expects coal to produce 40 percent of the nation's electricity, gas will fall to 27 percent, and carbon emissions will rise.

This is a golden moment – ripe with opportunity to fire an effective salvo against disastrous climate disruption.  But it will not necessarily happen due to market forces alone.  The continued - and more responsible - production of natural gas and the right regulatory policies on electricity generation will be needed.  

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