Power plants turning back to coal

WASHINGTON — Power plants in the United States are burning coal more often to generate electricity, reversing the growing use of natural gas and threatening to increase domestic emissions of greenhouse gases after a period of decline, according to a federal report.

Coal’s share of total domestic power generation in the first four months of 2013 averaged 39.5 percent, compared with 35.4 percent during the same period last year, according to the Energy Information Administration, the analytical branch of the Energy Department.

By contrast, natural gas generation averaged about 25.8 percent this year, compared with 29.5 percent a year earlier, the agency said in its most recent “Short-Term Energy Outlook.”

With coal prices dropping and gas prices rising, the agency said it expected the use of coal to remain on the upswing, accounting for 40.1 percent of electricity generation through 2014. Natural gas would fuel about 27.3 percent.

Power plants are the single largest source of greenhouse gases that drive climate change. The growing use of coal is occurring against the backdrop of President Barack Obama’s announcement of a sweeping plan to reduce greenhouse gases, including curtailing emissions from power plants. His initiative has already sparked opposition from the coal industry, congressional Republicans and coal-state politicians.

Opponents say new regulations are unnecessary in part because utilities have relied more on natural gas, which emits less heat-trapping carbon dioxide than coal does. But the new data indicate that power plants will readily return to coal if the price of natural gas gets too high.

“Markets on their own may go in your direction for a period of time, but to ensure that we get reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in a significant, sustained way, you’re going to need government intervention,” said James Bradbury of the World Resources Institute, a Washington think tank.

The energy administration estimated that carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels would rise by 2.4 percent in 2013 and 0.6 percent in 2014, after falling about 3.9 percent in 2012.

“The increase in emissions over the forecast period primarily reflects the projected increase in coal use for electricity generation, especially in 2013 as it rebounds from the 2012 decline,” the report said.

In a speech last month, Obama directed the Environmental Protection Agency to propose rules by June 2014 to cut greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. A rule for new power plants is expected by September.

Coal-fired generation accounted for about 50 percent of the electricity produced in the U.S. about a decade ago. But a natural gas boom driven by hydraulic fracturing has pushed down prices, making natural gas more competitive with coal. By April of last year, coal and natural gas each produced about one-third of the country’s power.

Lower demand for coal drove down its average price, said Elias Johnson, a coal industry expert for the agency. At the same time, the price of natural gas ticked upward, buoyed by demand and somewhat reduced production.

Utilities, many of which have natural gas and coal plants, will probably toggle between the two fuels in the near term, burning the cheaper one more often.

“What is the least expensive form of generation gets dispatched first: renewables, hydro, then maybe nuclear and then coal or natural gas,” said Karen Obenshain of the Edison Electric Institute, a utility trade group in Washington.

Coal is not expected to grab a 50 percent share of power generation again because new regulations curtailing mercury emissions from power plants will probably shutter many small, older coal plants, said Mark McCullough of American Electric Power, one of the country’s largest coal-fired utilities. Even with such closures, the U.S. will probably fail to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, a goal set by Obama in 2009, without a comprehensive effort to address carbon dioxide pollution.

Said Bradbury, “Electricity markets are very dynamic, and while there’s been a lot of press about the success story of the benefits of natural gas, it’s important to realize that that’s temporary and it depends on gas prices staying really low, and we’re starting to see there are these thresholds where utilities will switch back to higher-carbon fuel, like coal.”

More in Local News

Young woman missing from Mukilteo found safe

She called her parents and told them she was at a museum in Seattle.

Mom and brother turn in suspect in Stanwood robberies

The man is suspected of robbing the same gas station twice, and apologizing to the clerk afterward.

Derrick “Wiz” Crawford, 22, is a suspect in the homicide of his roommate. (Edmonds Police Department)
Roommate suspected in Edmonds killing found hiding in closet

Police had been searching for him for 10 days before locating him at a house in Everett.

Video shows man suspected of attacking a woman in Edmonds

The man allegedly threw her on the ground, then ran away after the she began kicking and screaming.

Navy to put filter in Coupeville’s contaminated water system

Chemicals from firefighting foam was found in the town’s drinking water.

Officials to test sanity of suspect in Everett crime spree

He allegedly tried to rob and clobber a transit worker, then fled and struggled with police.

Katharine Graham, then CEO and chairwoman of the board of The Washington Post Co., looks over a copy of The Daily Herald with Larry Hanson, then The Herald’s publisher, during her visit to Everett on Sept. 20, 1984. The Washington Post Co. owned The Herald from 1978 until 2013. (Herald archives)
Everett’s brush with Katharine Graham, leader of ‘The Post’

Retired Herald publisher Larry Hanson recalls The Washington Post publisher’s visits.

Former Monroe cop loses appeal on sex crimes conviction

Once a highly respected officer, he was found guilty of secretly videotaping his kids’ babysitter.

Families seek to change wrongful death law

A bill would allow or parents or siblings who wish to pursue a suit for an unmarried, childless adult.

Most Read