Can Coal be Dumped?

The Province of Ontario, Canada has virtually eliminated the use of coal for power generation.

Could the United States do the same?

Coal-fired power plant. Photo by USGS
Coal-fired power plant. Photo by USGS

Before addressing that question, here is the electricity generation mix for Ontario, Canada1 for 2012.

Table 1

Method

Percentage
Nuclear 56.4%
Hydro 22.3%
Gas 14.6%
Wind   3.0%
Coal   2.8%
Other   0.8%

Total

100%

Clearly, nearly 80% of Ontario’s power generation is from nuclear and hydro. Renewables play virtually no role in the effort to eliminate coal.

For comparison, only 30% of electricity is generated by nuclear and hydro in the United States. Renewables play the same small role in the United States.

Percentages for the United States for 2011 are shown in Table 2.

Table 2

Method

Percentage
Nuclear 19.3%
Hydro2 10.0%
Gas 24.8%
Wind and solar   2.7%
Coal   42.3%
Other   0.9%

Total

100%

The United States would have to build approximately 180 new nuclear power plants to achieve the same percentage of generation from nuclear as Ontario, Canada3. Actually, approximately 280 new nuclear power plants would have to be built since the existing 100 plants will probably be retired by the end of this century4 .

Obviously, building 180 or 280 new nuclear power plants won’t be possible given the opposition to nuclear in the United States.

Hydro can’t be significantly increased because of environmental opposition, except for an increase of approximately 10% from adding generating capabilities to existing dams where such equipment isn’t installed4.

The remaining alternative is to increase natural gas generation by roughly 2.5 times, by adding 150% to existing capacity with new natural gas power plants6.

While there probably is sufficient natural gas, the cost of natural gas is likely to increase.

There will also be the need to build new natural gas pipelines that can supply natural gas to power plants on an uninterruptable basis. Pipeline capacity is currently insufficient in several areas, with natural gas supply contracts allowing the supply to be interrupted when demand for natural gas is great, giving preference to homeowners.

Replacing coal with natural gas would increase natural gas usage by approximately 10.5 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) 7, so that total natural gas usage for power generation would be approximately 17.6 Tcf.

Total natural gas usage for all purposes in 2011 was 22.8 Tcf.

When the price of natural gas goes above $4.00 to $5.00 per million BTUs, coal produces electricity at lower cost.

While eliminating coal is theoretically possible, the question remains: Why deprive the United States from using coal, a valuable resource, especially since new ultra-supercritical coal-fired power plants are nearly as clean as natural gas power plants, and can meet all EPA emission requirements except for CO2?

Once again, CO2 needlessly affects energy usage.

The Province of Ontario, is not an appropriate model for establishing whether the United States can dump coal.

  1. Data from Power Magazine, May 1, 2013
  2. Hydro is estimated for 2012. In 2010 hydro accounted for 9.6% of power generation, while in 2011 it accounted for 11.8%
  3. To merely replace all coal fired power in the United States, without increasing other supplies, would require building approximately 200 or 300 nuclear power plants.
  4. Existing nuclear power plants must obtain a second extension to their operating licenses, assuming all 100 existing plants are granted an initial 20-year extension. (Four of 104 existing plants are being retired.) These plants would be 80 years old at the end of the second extension, so there is some doubt whether a second extension would be granted.
  5. See an assessment by DOE at http://www1.eere.energy.gov/water/pdfs/npd_report.pdf
  6. This refers to natural gas combined cycle plants.
  7. This is derived by converting the BTUs required for coal with BTUs required for natural gas, adjusting for the better thermal efficiency of natural gas combined cycle units compared with the existing fleet of coal-fired power plants.

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