March 1, 2013

Gas Rising, Coal Falling, in Electricity Generation

The Breakthrough Institute comments:  

Coal electricity declined by 12.5 percent in 2012, mostly driven by the switch to natural gas, which increased by almost the exact same amount (217 terrawatt-hours) as coal declined (216 TWh), according to new annual numbers released by the US Energy Information Administration. 

Wind electricity increased as well — by about one-tenth (20.5 TWh) as much as gas. Solar increased a little more than one-hundredth as much as gas (2.5 TWh). 

The figures come at a time when renewable energy advocates have claimed that wind and solar have been responsible for the big declines in coal — claims that do not stand up to scrutiny, according to a new Breakthrough Institute analysis. 

Indeed, the new numbers highlight the key difference between gas and solar and wind. Where taxpayers subsidized unconventional gas exploration from 1980 to 2002 to the tune of $10 billion, natural gas in recent years has been replacing coal without subsidies.

Wind and solar, by contrast, remain almost wholly dependent on public support. Uncertainty last year over whether Congress would renew the key wind subsidy meant that less than half as much new wind will be installed in 2013 as was installed in 2012.

Where the problem for wind has been its high cost, the problem for gas is that it has become too cheap. Natural gas production slowed last year in the face of unprofitably low prices caused by overproduction. . . . 

On the subsequent comment thread, a pungent expression of doubt from Wilmot McCutchen:  

Pundits who are now dancing on the grave of coal need to look at the steep depletion of fracked gas wells and the growing public awareness of the danger they pose to the water supply.  What else can replace coal?  Nuclear is paralyzed by radiation fears and a history of cost overruns.  Hydro is maxed out.  Boutique solutions like wind, solar, and biofuels are not scalable to utility scale baseload generation.  So does anyone have a plan for reviving coal and mitigating its pollution?

 As against the "new abolitionism," this represents a new realism.

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