An Easy Way To Retire Coal Plants?

by Bradford Plumer | April 20, 2010

Coal generates nearly 50 percent of our electricity in the United States (and more than one-fourth of the country's carbon emissions), and it's central to nearly all climate-policy discussions. But would the black stuff really be so hard to phase out, if we wanted to? Maybe not. Sheila McNulty takes note of a new report from consulting firm PFC Energy, which suggests that gas-fired power plants could, in theory, replace nearly all coal-fired capacity in the United States without much hassle. That's because most gas plants only run at about 25 percent of capacity, compared with around 70 percent for coal. If utilities operated their existing gas plants at about 70 percent, they could offset nearly all coal use—and cut emissions from the power sector in half.

It's not a totally outlandish idea—in fact, Colorado just passed a law which will phase out the state's older coal plants and replace them, in part, with natural gas. But doing so it won't necessarily be simple. For one, even though huge pockets of shale gas have recently been discovered across the United States, natural gas prices have had a habit of fluctuating pretty wildly in the past (here's a pithy graph from Depleted Cranium making that point).

And, of course, drilling for shale gas is a remarkably dirty affair—the hydro-fracking process uses an enormous amount of water, produces ozone pollution, and there's always the small chance that the chemicals used will contaminate nearby drinking water. Alex Halperin has a piece in The American Prospect this month about the growing opposition to shale drilling projects in upstate New York. True, in the grand scheme of things, natural gas still looks preferable to coal—as we've seen with the mining accident in West Virginia, coal has all sorts of horrific downsides unrelated to climate change—but that doesn't mean gas is an easy, cost-free solution, either.

P.S. Also in the Prospect is this smart piece by Sarah Laskow about the new natural-gas lobby that's ramping up in Washington. Gas companies mostly abstained from wading into the House climate bill debate, and they're not planning on making the same mistake in the coming Senate discussions.

(Flickr photo credit: Mike Orazzi)

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