Lack of viability of coal power apparent in handy map and online calculator

By Warren Cornwall Dec. 16, 2016 , 11:15 AM

President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to revive the flagging U.S. coal industry, but a new analysis suggests cheap natural gas and falling prices for wind and solar power mean there are few places where it makes sense to build a new coal-fired power plant.

To boost coal power, Trump has promised to dismantle the centerpiece of President Barack Obama’s climate change initiatives, regulations dubbed the Clean Power Plan (CPP) that would restrict greenhouse gas pollution from electricity plants. Republicans have derided the plan as part of Obama’s “war on coal,” and the U.S. Supreme Court has put a hold on the regulations pending the resolution of a legal challenge.

But even without the CPP, coal already can’t compete with other energy sources in most of the country when it comes to building new power plants, suggests a new computer model from researchers at the University of Texas (UT) in Austin.

As the first map below shows, even without the CPP, gas and wind (pink and medium blue) are already the cheapest new power sources in nearly 75% of the nation’s 3110 counties.

Tack on the CPP (middle map), which would require coal plants to capture some of their carbon emissions, and coal (red) cedes more territory to wind and natural gas.

And coal disappears from the map if you add the environmental and public health costs associated with various energy sources (the third map), including a $62 per metric ton price on carbon dioxide emissions. And nuclear power (light blue) expands.

The mammoth analysis suggests that “it might be that decarbonization [of the U.S. electrical grid] is able to be met even without the Clean Power Plan,” says Michael Webber, an engineer and deputy director of UT’s Energy Institute, which conducted the research. “The big thing is if gas stays low [in price] then coal has a tough time.”

The work is part of a broader initiative at the institute, aimed at tallying all the costs that come with keeping the lights on, from environmental impacts to building transmission lines or responding to regulations. Snazzy online calculators and mapping tools that accompany the new model enable users to tweak a number of variables, including gas prices and environmental costs, and see how the nation’s energy future might change, at the level of individual counties.

The work has its limitations. The Obama regulations would have the biggest impact on whether existing coal plants are shut down, and that wasn’t included in the model. (An Energy Information Administration study published this past June suggests the plan would shrink coal’s overall share of the electrical grid from 33% in 2015 to 21% in 2030; even without the plan, coal’s share would still shrink to 30%.) Also, although the model breaks things down to the individual county, the electrical grid doesn’t follow county lines, and the maps also don’t take into account which areas use the most electricity.

Still, Webber says the visualizations could help utilities, regulators, and advocacy groups communicate with the broader public about the different forces shaping the evolution of the nation’s electrical grid.

For example, in the first map above that reflects current conditions, gas tops the list chiefly in the West and Southeast, whereas wind wins out in much of the Midwest, parts of the Appalachians, and the Northeast. Solar enjoys an advantage in 13% of counties, chiefly in the sunny Southeast and Southwest. Coal is the cheapest in 10% of counties, primarily in the Southeast and Appalachian coal country.

In contrast, in the middle map with the CPP, coal becomes the cheapest option in just 3% of counties, mostly because the plants might need to install costly carbon capture systems.

And nuclear power becomes one of the big winners if you add other environmental and health costs to the CPP (the third map). Nuclear becomes the cheapest alternative in 13% of counties, displacing coal and, perhaps surprisingly, nudging out solar power in parts of the Southeast, Midwest, and Northwest. That’s because it takes a lot of energy to build solar panels, says Joshua Rhodes, a UT engineer involved in developing the model. (The model doesn’t account for the cost of disposing of the nuclear waste, beyond a fee the federal government charges nuclear power plants.)