Jarrett: EPA proposal could cut coal emissions and boost fuel diversity

Terry Jarrett
Special to Energy
Terry Jarrett

Recently, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) revised an Obama administration mandate for the use of carbon capture and storage (CCS) in future U.S. coal plants. Essentially, the EPA has dropped the CCS mandate and is instead encouraging the use of advanced coal technologies that can cut emissions while preserving baseload power. 

The revised EPA standard will allow for high-efficiency, low-emissions (HELE) technologies that can raise the efficiency of the average coal plant from its current 33 percent to a more robust 40 percent. 

In addition to CO2 reductions, however, there’s also the positive impact on America’s electricity mix. The U.S. has already shut down more than 46.5 Gigawatts of coal-fired generation since 2011 according to the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC). And another 19 Gigawatts of coal capacity is slated to close in the next decade. At the same time, the U.S. is focusing more on natural gas. However, the nation’s natural gas power plants are already feeling the strain. 

According to the Department of Energy (DOE), the deep freeze that hit the U.S. in early 2018 significantly increased electricity demand, requiring coal plants to provide 55 percent of daily incremental power generation. The DOE says that without the nation’s remaining coal plants, “the eastern United States would have suffered severe electricity shortages, likely leading to widespread blackouts.”

During this deep freeze, natural gas pipelines were spread thin. PJM Interconnection, which oversees electricity for 13 states and the District of Columbia, subsequently reported that on January 7’s deep freeze, 5,913 Megawatts of natural gas capacity was unavailable due to “supply outages.” And more than 8,000 Megawatts of gas plant capacity was forced to shut down. 

The long 2018 winter also left gas producers with less time to refill the nation’s storage capacity. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reports that storage of natural gas is now running roughly 16 percent lower than its five-year average. A Marketwatch analysis found that the U.S. is currently experiencing a “15-year low in stockpiles,” and Forbes is warning of “historically low gas storage.”

The United States has been the world’s top producer of natural gas since 2009. But natural gas exports are expected to triple by the end of 2019, and prices are already rising steadily. Last month, the price of natural gas rose to the highest level in more than four years. 

As America’s dependence on natural gas grows, the pain that would come from a significant, sustained rise in gas prices could be severe. It’s critically important to maintain fuel diversity—the ability to switch from one fuel source to another, depending on market conditions. And if making America’s coal plants go high-tech can boost efficiency and lower emissions, that’s a reasonable path toward meeting future energy needs.

Terry M. Jarrett is an energy attorney and consultant who has served on both the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and the Missouri Public Service Commission. He contributes regularly to LeadingLightEnergy.com.