Reality Check: Coal Is Winning The Energy War

  • Date: 08/07/14
  • Eric Roston, Bloomberg

As wars go, the fight between clean and dirty energy sources is more like a centuries-old religious conflict than shock and awe. Coal isn’t surrendering so fast and in 2040 the electricity sector might not look radically different from today.

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

Source: The Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, July 2014

Emissions in 2040 top today’s in the EIA and cheap coal scenarios.

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