Coal has been the predominant source of energy in the United States since the end of World War II. In 2016, the use of natural gas exceeded the use of coal for the first time. In 2015, coal and natural gas each provided 32% of the energy produced. Nuclear made up about 18% and renewables made up about 1% (this has changed drastically as of June 2019 – keep reading). The reason is quite simple; money. Natural gas prices, with the introduction of fracking and shale, have gone down considerably, making it much cheaper than before. Throw in the fact that natural gas burns cleaner and it has become a perfect storm for natural gas to take a larger market share.
Does this mean that natural gas is taking over? Maybe in the short term.
It makes sense to continue generating power from coal because we still have such abundant supply. At current usage, it is estimated that based on the coalfields we know about now, there are about 200 years of coal reserves in the US alone.
Environmental considerations have played a secondary role in the shift from coal to natural gas. Coal plants produce more SO2 (sulfur dioxide) and NOx (oxides of Nitrogen) than plants fired with natural gas. Coal plants are seen as “dirtier” than natural gas because the Clean Air Act limits the amount of these products that can be produced during electrical generation. Technology does exist to limit SO2 and NOx products from coal plants, and many electrical companies are investing in cleaning up the coal flue gas that discharges to the environment. Technologies such as Flue Gas Desulfurization plants and Selective Catalytic Reduction units can virtually eliminate the harmful gases that are mandated to be limited by the EPA.
Renewable energy is another form of power that is and will continue to challenge both natural gas and coal for market share. For the first time in June of 2019, the United States produced more energy from renewable sources than from coal, according to new figures from the US Energy Information Administration. In April 2019, Hydroelectric dams, photovoltaic solar panels, concentrated solar plants, and wind turbines generated 68.5 million megawatt-hours of energy compared to 60 million for coal.
However, replacing natural gas and coal with renewable sources isn’t currently a reliable option. Hydroelectric dams are a finite resource because it takes the correct conditions to build the facilities. Solar and wind are still considered unreliable for a sustained generation as photovoltaic solar panels don’t produce at night and the wind doesn’t always blow consistently enough to rely on it as a continuous source of power. Until adequate energy storage is developed to capture excess energy from renewables to be used at night and when the wind is not blowing, many renewables will remain unreliable.
Where Are We Now?
For these reasons coal and natural gas are still the main components or our power grid…and should be. The technology is proven and sustainable. Photovoltaic solar panels are inefficient and cost as much to produce as the power they generate over their lifetime. Natural gas will continue to increase its market share until the demand outstrips the supply and then the prices will go back up. All of these factors may eventually bring coal back to the forefront as the largest resource for generated energy.
Is your power plant looking at operating with Natural Gas and Coal? Talk to FCS about a customized training plan for a Cogeneration Facility.
Rick Cragg is a project manager at Fossil Consulting Services. Rick spent 20 years in the U.S. Navy running nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers and has worked for FCS for 15 years. Rick is the recognized expert on FGDs at FCS, having commissioned and worked on at least 20. Lately, Rick has Worked on SCRs, Scrubbers, and Natural Gas Conversions throughout the United States and abroad. He provides technical consulting services to utility, independent power, and government clients in the areas of fossil/cogeneration/hydropower plant training need assessments, program design, development, and implementation, as well as auditing of existing programs and materials to ensure compliance with client needs and expectations.