There’s plenty of talk these days among energy advocates and environmentalists about the need for natural gas to replace coal as the workhorse producer for America’s daily electricity needs. And coal has undoubtedly been on the ropes in recent years, with both expanded natural gas production and a host of federal regulations cutting coal plants and closing mines. But is the quest to end coal power a sound idea? And can natural gas really supplant coal in providing nationwide base load power generation?
For years, coal produced roughly half of America’s electricity. And it wasn’t until the start of the Obama Administration that the fracking revolution began to unleash more abundant and lower-priced natural gas.
Why are coal and nuclear so particularly suited to meeting base load power requirements? For one thing, both can run continually, day in and day out, to keep churning out megawatt after megawatt. Part of this ability comes from a built-in benefit of maintaining steady, on-site fuel supplies. A typical coal plant, for example, will stock up on a month’s worth of coal at a time — making it a self-contained bunker of ongoing electricity production. Nuclear is likewise self-sufficient — though admittedly more expensive than coal.
There’s still the issue of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, though, and concerns about man-made global warming. Encouragingly, newer HELE (high-efficiency, low-emission) coal plants run at higher temperatures and pressures, generating more power and emitting less CO2 per gigawatt generated. It would be nice to see China and India — two countries currently racing to build new coal plants — adopting similar, advanced technologies.
But natural gas has been prioritized for home heating in the United States. And while its share of electricity generation has risen from 17 percent in 2001 to 34 percent in 2016, there are some notable constraints against its mass-adoption.
- On September 5, 2017