Is the U.S. Just Switching from Coal to Fracked Natural Gas?

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Methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, is rising, and faster. Not what our beleaguered climate needs.  Source:
Methane, more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, is rising, and faster. Source: EPA

Who knew that in five short years that 200, or 40 percent of, U.S. coal-fired electricity plants have closed down? Even some of the Baltimore-area dinosaur plants have registered to deactivate. No doubt this is excellent news as cheap natural gas, pollution regulations and grassroots efforts are forcing dirty power plants to retire. This translates to cleaner air and fewer health issues, which is good news for Baltimore as a chunk of the closures are in the Ohio Valley, whose  pollution floats right into Charm City’s air. 

The not-so-good-news is that U.S. electrical power plants are switching to the ‘bridge fuel,’ fracking’s cheap natural gas. Even in Maryland, while some coal-fired plants may retire, five natural gas plants are proposed. Natural gas burns cleaner. But during drilling, fracking leaks global-warming methane like a sieve straight into our climate. Already sky-high global methane levels are rising faster than ever. The $64,000 question: Will we convert to renewable energy fast enough in order to not cook ourselves to death?

Why did 200 coal-fired plants close so quickly?

A ‘perfect storm’ of economics and regulations brewed, and coal-fired power plants have been the boat on the high seas. Since 2006, fracking’s 100,000 natural gas wells have oversupplied the natural gas market and prices plummeted nearly 75 percent.  Power plant operators shifted their electricity generation fuel from coal to natural gas. This month, as the graph below illustrates, more electricity was generated by gas than coal.

More U.S. electricity is generated from fracking's natural gas than coal. Source: EIA
More U.S. electricity is generated from fracking’s natural gas than coal. Source: EIA

Another bottom-line force has been the EPA’s Mercury & Air Toxic Standard federal regulation that finally limited mercury emissions. Power plant operators found that updating pollution controls on many rickety power plants a poor investment. Some of the 200 retired power plants were built during the Great Depression, or even earlier!

A third factor was Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal grassroots campaign. Michael Bloomberg invested $80 million into the equation by supporting the Beyond Coal. The campaign’s strategy was to build a nation-wide group of activists supported by marketing to advocate for coal-fired closures at the state level. Federal regulations are executed state-by-state. You can bet that in every state’s dull, yet important, governmental hearing focusing on closing power plants, Sierra Club advocates were present pushing for plant closings.   

Ohio Valley coal-fired plants are closing. Wind farms in the Mid-West, and solar in the West are coming online. But, natural gas power plants are also coming online.
Ohio Valley coal-fired plants are closing. Wind farms in the Mid-West, and solar in the West are coming online. But, natural gas power plants are also coming online.

Fracking’s Natural Gas ‘Gotcha’

If you spent three months at a new fracking well and observed the flaring and smelled the off-gasses, recent peer-reviewed research would make sense to you. Fracking leaks methane 50 percent higher than the EPA figured. Fracking makes climate change worse, not better. In reality, fracking does not beat out coal. Natural gas is mostly methane (CH4), and methane traps more heat than carbon dioxide. Methane is exactly what our climate doesn’t need.

So What’s the Upshot?

Wind energy is coming online, and it’s displacing coal. According to the Energy Information Administration’s projections, wind will outpace natural gas new electricity generation. The caveat is that natural gas has a 3-5 times higher utilization rate. And, gas is a more efficient electricity generating fuel than wind.

Wind is soaring. Source: EIA
Wind is soaring. Source: EIA

But, good news is good news. Keep your eye on many future efforts intended to gin-up renewables. Maryland’s PSC just ordered utilities to hit energy conservation levels to 2 percent a year. Obama’s Clean Power Plan’s goal is to cut U.S. power plant pollution by 30 percent. This week, construction began on the East Coast’s first wind farm off Rhode Island. Maryland’s Community Solar legislation allows homeowners to buy their solar installations off-site, making solar accessible to anyone despite their rooftop.

With a mix of strong governmental support, favorable economics and political will, we need to quickly cut our greenhouse gas emissions. Especially as 2015 is the hottest year ever recorded in the Northern Hemisphere by a stunning 0.36 degrees F.

Laurel Peltier
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