If It's a War on Coal, Coal Is Winning

Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

As wars go, the fight between clean and dirty energy sources is more like a centuries-old religious conflict than shock and awe.

That’s one lesson from a new study of U.S. power generation by the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies. In 2040, the electricity sector might not look radically different from the way it does today, with emissions a little higher, or lower, and power sources still clubbing each other over the head for market share. Coal isn’t surrendering so fast, renewables won’t clean up the planet by themselves and, if the U.S. can ever put a price on carbon, the most politically tolerable level (here, $10 per metric ton of carbon dioxide) won’t do the trick. That’s just enough change to keep everybody in the game and nobody happy.

Making it harder for the U.S. to cut carbon: the persistence of cheap coal, the possibility of higher natural gas prices and political unwillingness to address climate change. So U.S. carbon dioxide emissions from producing electricity may fall only modestly, with coal and natural gas still responsible for more than 60 percent of power generation a generation hence, the study found. U.S. studies "may underestimate the potential for coal-based generation," the report states.

This chart shows how projected U.S. emissions vary in each of five cases. The light blue squares show a business-as-usual case, which is based on the Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) most recent analysis. The study then tinkers with the EIA case to see how projections change with each of four variables -- low coal prices, low renewable power prices, low electricity demand growth, and a price for emitting carbon dioxide, levied per ton. The options for playing around are always limited. Better and cheaper technology, drops in demand and policy changes are all things that models don't capture very well.

Source: The Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, July 2014

Emissions in 2040 top today’s in the EIA and cheap coal scenarios. Even cheap renewable power wouldn’t make too much of a dent, according to the projections, which still show emissions higher than today’s, because solar, wind and other technologies would be added to a power network that is largely powered by similar amounts of coal and gas. The cost of building renewables would have to drop far lower than the EIA model proposes before clean technologies would start displacing coal and gas plants dramatically.

Only an unlikely, slower growth in electricity demand and a price on carbon pollution bring marked CO2 reductions in the sector. A tax of $10 per ton of CO2 pushes emissions down most dramatically, to about 1,446 tons in 2040, or 29 percent below 2012 levels. A $25 price per ton of emissions, not included on this chart, basically shuts down U.S. coal production, according to the study.

The Oxford report calls President Obama’s recently proposed power plant rules modest, “at least from a European perspective.” Without much threat of policy significantly altering the power picture, greens can continue to wage war on coal, coal on gas, and gas on greens, for years to come.

More by Eric Roston (@eroston on Twitter)

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