Electricity generation from coal has plummeted from favor in the last few years. A majority of Americans now favor stricter regulations on coal plants, even if it means higher energy prices. In Europe public opinion has tilted away from coal even more sharply: a recent survey showed that 80% of Germans want to end coal-fired generation altogether. The anti-coal movement has also gained steam, so to speak, in some unlikely places.
That doesn’t mean King Coal will be dethroned any time soon. In confirmation hearings before the Senate, Gina McCarthy, President Obama’s nomination for the director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, struck a conciliatory tone when asked about the future of the U.S. coal industry.
“Coal has been and will continue to be a significant source of energy in the United States, and I take my job seriously when developing those standards to provide flexibility in the rules,” McCarthy told lawmakers. “Flexibility,” in this context, means “exceptions to the forthcoming rules on carbon emissions from power plants.”
German environmental minister Peter Altmaier was more blunt last year, speaking of the black fuel’s future on the continent: Coal-fired plants will be needed “for decades to come” to ensure reliable supplies of power.
In fact, coal consumption is rising, both in the United States and in Europe, to say nothing of China. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects power generation from coal to increase by nearly 8% in 2013, bringing coal’s portion of total U.S. generation back to 40%, from 37.4% in 2012. The cause, according to the EIA: “the increasing cost of natural gas relative to coal.”
(Source: Energy Information Administration)
High prices for natural gas are also driving a coal resurgence in Europe; carbon emissions in Germany, for example, increased by 2% in 2012, according to a feature in Nature, largely as a result of increased power generation from cheap coal.
Developments in Germany reflect the larger paradox facing nations attempting to move toward clean energy production: under the Energiewende, Germany’s national program to shift 35% of its power generation to clean sources by 2020, the country is investing €1.5 billion in renewable energy per year. However, economic forces continue to push power production to fossil fuels. Generation from solar photovoltaic installations actually decreased by 500 GWh in 2012, and Germany is currently building some 11 GW of coal-fired capacity (though a substantial portion of that will be so-called “clean coal,” replacing older plants with more efficient, lower-emissions technology). Germany’s decision to shut down its nuclear power plants after the Fukushima nuclear accident is driving the country to coal for baseload power.
“One of Europe’s biggest energy providers, E.ON based in Düsseldorf, announced in January that it plans to close several gas-fired power stations across Europe that were operating at a loss,” Nature reported, “even though they are far less polluting than coal-fired plants.”
Eventually, coal will be phased out. However, everyone anticipating a rapid changeover from the fuel that powered the Industrial Revolution has a long wait ahead.
Tags: Climate Change, Coal, Natural Gas, Policy & Regulation, Power Generation, Renewable Energy, Smart Energy Practice
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