Navigant Research Blog

Will Coal Plant Retirements and Fracking Threaten Electric Reliability?

— December 17, 2014

The implications of the rapid retirement of much of the U.S. coal generation fleet are just coming to light, and transmission operators and generation utilities are actively discussing and planning on contingencies that could cause a real threat to reliability and availability in many regions across the nation.  (The issues around retiring and decommissioning coal plants were discussed in Navigant Research’s research brief, Coal Plant Decommissioning.)  Compounding the threat of coal generation plant retirements is a short-term shortage of coal in many regions of the nation.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced its proposed Clean Power Plan (CPP) rule in June 2014.  It’s expected that the final rule will be announced in June 2015.  The CPP targets CO2 emissions by existing fossil-fueled electric generation and sets targeted reductions for each state.  The plan, as currently proposed, mandates 30% reductions in carbon emissions by 2030 from 2005 levels.

The proposed plan also gives each state flexibility to develop its own approach as to how it will meet the targets, including retiring problematic coal and other fossil fuel generation, adding renewables, such as wind or solar generation, or increasing levels of demand response and energy efficiency programs, which the recent EPA mandates may accelerate.

Time to Plan

Most people do not understand the issues that will arise in the Midwest and the southeastern United States as a result of coal generation plant retirements.  The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) discusses the implications at length in a recent paper on the impact of generation plant retirements based on the CPP.  NERC concludes the paper by suggesting that states immediately start operational and planning scenario studies, addressing resource adequacy, transmission adequacy, dynamic stability, and  economic and reliability impacts.  This must be done to demonstrate reliability and to ensure that plans of action are technically achievable within the stated time requirements.  “States that largely rely on fossil-fuel resources might need to make significant changes to their power systems to meet the EPA’s target for carbon reductions while maintaining system reliability,” the NERC authors conclude.

Supplies Down

In the near term, another related reliability threat is looming: the availability of coal to fuel the generation plants operating today.  Having formed a new trade group called the Western Coal Traffic League, Midwestern utilities are frustrated because their normal coal supplies from western U.S. coal producers have kept utilities from rebuilding stockpiles burned during last year’s cold winter. Compounding the effect, record harvests, economic growth, and growing oil shipments from the country’s booming oil fracking industry in in the upper Midwest are constraining the rail system.

The effective implementation of the CPP, along with tight supplies of coal, will make for an interesting winter in many parts of the United States.

 

Finally, Germany Makes Progress on Coal

— November 2, 2014

For critics who scoff that Europe’s carbon emission reduction goals are unachievable, Germany has become Exhibit No. 1.  Since Chancellor Angela Merkel decreed in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident that Germany would phase out its nuclear power industry, coal use in Germany has been on the rise, and the country’s carbon emissions have remained stubbornly high.

Now it appears that tide may be turning.  According to AG Energiebilanzen (“Working Group on Energy Balances”), an energy research firm, total energy consumption in Germany is projected to fall by 5% in 2014, compared to 2013, to the lowest level since the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Coal consumption for the year is expected to be down more than 9%.

Those declines are due mostly to the mild winter in 2013-2014, but clean energy is expanding as well: Renewable energy use grew by 1.6% over the first 9 months of 2014, compared to the previous year.

The Brown Stuff

Germany’s coal use carries particular importance not only because it is Europe’s biggest economy, but also because Germany burns mostly lignite or “brown coal,” the dirtiest form of coal, and because Germany’s green energy program, known as the Energiewende, is among the most ambitious in the world.  While renewable energy production has expanded rapidly in Germany – accounting, at times, for 100% of the country’s power demand and forcing utilities to pay customers to consume electricity from conventional power plants – the nuclear phase-out has led to a rise in the burning of coal for baseload power supply.

Now, the government is at least considering shutting down coal plants.  German minister Rainer Baake of the Green Party told reporters in late October that the government could come up with a plan as early as December to eliminate coal-fired capacity and boost energy efficiency programs.  Earlier Der Spiegel reported that the government wants to eliminate as much as 10 GW of coal capacity.  A decision will likely not come until next year.

Please Exit

Getting rid of coal is critical if Germany is to reach its target of cutting greenhouse gas emissions 40% compared to 1990 levels by 2020.  The environment ministry has said that if current trends continue, the country will fall short of that goal by 5 to 8 percentage points.

Meanwhile Swedish energy giant Vattenfall, one of Europe’s largest operators of power plants, said it will seek to sell off its coal-fired plants in Germany.  Vattenfall’s coal operations in Germany produce some 60 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) a year – more than Sweden’s total CO2 emissions.

Like a drunk uncle at a wedding, Germany’s coal industry is an embarrassing and unwelcome guest that everyone would like to usher to the exit.  Getting it out the door, though, remains a tough task.

 

As Rail Congestion Crimps Coal Supplies, Calls for Expansion Grow Louder

— October 27, 2014

Even as power plant operators are warning of coal supply shortages come winter, the U.S. government has predicted that congestion on the nation’s railways is likely to get much worse in coming years.

Increased freight traffic traveling by rail – particularly crude oil from the Great Plains and grain from a bumper crop this year – has led to significant bottlenecks across the railway network, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said in a report issued in September.  Rail traffic has reached the levels last seen in 2007, before the global recession, and “recent trends in freight flows, if they continue as expected, may exacerbate congestion issues in communities, particularly along certain corridors,” the GAO concluded.

Sounding a more dire warning, Hunter Harrison, the CEO of Canadian Pacific, said during a recent analyst briefing that the entire North American railway system is headed toward a cliff.  “We’re quickly approaching a time where none of this works,” Harrison said, according to the Financial Times.  “We cannot continue to go down the road that we’re going down and be successful and not have gridlock beyond anything we’ve experienced before.”

On to Chicago, Slowly

Like a slow train spotted in the distance, this fall’s tie-up of train traffic has been anticipated for years.  The domestic oil & gas boom, centered in the Bakken formation in North Dakota, has had ripple effects across the upper Midwest, the Rocky Mountains, and the Pacific Northwest.  Chicago, where all seven of the Class I railroad companies have major yards, is one of the biggest bottlenecks.  Rail transport is relatively low-cost and emits less CO2 than shipping by plane or truck, but investment in rail infrastructure has been slow.  Producers and consumers of coal, in particular, have traditionally been trapped in exclusive contracts that give them little leverage in negotiations with rail providers.  In September, Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia introduced the Surface Transportation Board Reauthorization Act, which would increase the authority of the Surface Transportation Board, which regulates railroads, to force them to remedy service delays and justify rate hikes.  Lawmakers chided rail executives at a September 10 hearing in Washington for their failure to anticipate and keep up with increased demands on the railway system.

The problem is especially acute for mines in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin trying to ship coal to customers.  Big coal-burning utilities have already begun running coal plants at below capacity in order to conserve coal stocks.

Ship Gas, Not Coal

Some of this alarm is likely overstated; no one has suggested that coal plants are actually in danger of running out of fuel this winter.  And despite the transport constriction, the price of Powder River Basin coal remains stubbornly low; the price of a ton has dropped 8%, to $10.80, according to Bloomberg.  As a matter of national policy, it makes sense to reduce shipments of dirty coal by diesel-burning trains to supply aging power plants that are quickly becoming uneconomical anyway.  Meanwhile, tight coal supplies will inevitably lead to louder calls for other types of energy transport infrastructure: namely, natural gas pipelines.

There are good reasons to invest in expanding the nation’s railway infrastructure; shipping more coal is probably not one of them.

 

Winners and Losers under the U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan

— September 5, 2014

The most cost-effective and accessible way for states to replace retiring coal plants and comply with the U.S. EPA’s proposed carbon regulation (the Clean Power Plan, or CPP, released in June 2014) is through demand-side measures.  These include the energy efficiency programs that the EPA uses to calculate emissions rate targets in the CPP as well as other measures, such as demand response.  Analysis by Navigant and others shows that measures that cut demand growth will cut compliance costs.  However, most states cannot meet their targets by energy efficiency alone.

It’s in electricity customers’ best interest for states and utilities to implement the CPP with as much emphasis on energy efficiency and demand response as they are physically and financially able to.  For this primary reason, states and utilities will expand programs where they already exist and introduce new programs where there are gaps.

Accelerating Retirements

The costs to comply with the CPP, in addition to costs to comply with other environmental regulations as well as competition with low-cost natural gas, will drive approximately 45 GW of additional coal retirements by 2025, beyond anticipated retirements without the CPP (according to Navigant’s analysis).  The aging U.S. coal fleet already faces troubled times, with low natural gas prices expected to continue and the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) requiring hundreds of coal plants to install costly emissions controls or shut down.  As coal plant owners look ahead to a carbon-constrained future, they are weighing complex decisions about whether it makes sense to invest in improvements in the near term when the long-term future of their coal fleets is uncertain.  Much depends on what the EPA’s final regulation will look like and how states will choose to implement it.

While the discussion around coal retirements tends to center on replacement by natural gas, wind and solar will also play a role.  The CPP will drive solar and wind generation above and beyond existing renewable targets, even in states that do not currently have a Renewable Portfolio Standard.  Growth will be particularly strong in areas that have high potential for solar and wind, such as the Desert Southwest and the Texas Panhandle, and where higher power prices make renewables more cost-effective.  Although much of the new solar capacity will be distributed customer-scale generation, wind installations will continue to be larger, utility-scale deployments.

New Questions Raised

The power sector has been expecting federal-level climate change policy or regulations for years.  This has been a major area of uncertainty for future generation planning.  However, the release of the proposed CPP has not led to any concrete assumptions for the future, and it has likely generated more uncertainty than it has quelled.  How will the EPA fashion its final regulation?  Will states choose to band together to implement the regulation, and will the basis for their implementation be rate-based or mass-based targets?  How will energy efficiency be measured and verified?  How will differences between states be reconciled in a system where electricity is constantly moving across state lines?  The answers to these questions will drive broad changes in the power sector and have ripple effects across the national economy.  These ripples will be felt by all industry players that are electricity customers (i.e., everyone) and, indirectly, by the healthcare industry (handling fewer conditions brought on by poor air quality) and the insurance industry (facing lessened impacts of climate change).

It’s not surprising that the CPP will transform the domestic power generation landscape, reducing coal use, lowering demand growth (due to energy efficiency and conservation programs), and increasing gas-fired and renewable generation.  Thinking globally, the plan could be just what the international community has been calling for: leadership on climate change from the United States that will push other nations (notably China and India) to follow suit.

 

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