Making sense of trends and data


The answer is blowing in the wind & basking in the sun

Published 5.12.2017
Coal is not coming back. Even West Virginia coal mine owners realize that. West Virginia’s governor wants the state’s biggest utility to burn more of it, but that’s not going to happen.

Beam told the governor—a farmer and coal mogul himself—that all new power generation would likely come from wind, solar, and natural gas. “The governor asked me, ‘I’d like you to burn more coal,’” Beam said according to the West Virginia Gazette-Mail. “Well, we don’t have any more coal plants. We’re not going to build any more coal plants. That’s not going to happen.”

New coal plants are not going to be built. Trump hasn’t said yet if he is going to keep the US in the Paris Agreement, but if he does, there’s no way to meet the emission standards with new coal plants. The Global Wind Energy Council makes this point in every presentation they make. As of this writing, it is not clear what Trump will de vis a vis the Paris Agreement. Secretary of State Tillerson has advised staying in the accord to keep a "seat at the table."

Appalachian Power’s residential and industrial customers (pdf), which include Steel Dynamics, Koch Industries, and Marathon petroleum, are now asking about switching to 100% renewables, says John Shepelwich of Appalachian Power. In order to get out in front of this growing demand, the utility, which serves more than a million customers across the US mid-Atlantic region, has begun preparing power plans that would allow customers to stop using fossil fuels.

West Virginia doesn’t require clean or low emissions, but customers elsewhere do. The argument has been won, at least in regard to carbon dioxide. Coal’s problem isn’t actually competition from renewables, it is natural gas— as has also been noted on this site many times.

The projected share of total U.S. generation for natural gas is expected to average 34%, which is down from 37% last summer but still exceeds coal’s generation share of 32%.

Coal also has faced growing competition from renewable energy, with solar costs falling 85% between 2008 and 2016 and wind costs falling 36%. Coal is not alone as a number of nuclear power plants have shut down in recent years due to competitive pressures from renewables. Their shutdown comes even as a number of states pass laws and adopt rules that recognize the value of zero emission resources such as nuclear.

US electric demand contracted in the recession, and has the economy comes back, people have taken the opportunity to adopt new more power efficient technologies, which means demand has not recovered at the rate expected.

Storage, which is not common with utility sized renewable energy, is the key to renewables becoming a major fraction of the power generation. The industry and utilities seem to disagree, preferring instead to use the energy as generated (which is complicated) and switch between sources (also complicated). Grid flexibility is all the rage.

The problem is, of course, there is no inexpensive way to store the solar generated power cheaply. Many of the best solar generating regions are far from water sources. Hydro storage of excess power is the way many utilities plan for demand surges. If there was a cheap storage option that could scale to utility size, the calculation might shift towards storage over grid flexibility.

Researchers of Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) have a design for sulphur based storage system for solar energy.

The partial project executed by KIT focuses on the technical implementation of combustion. It is planned to develop a lab-scale sulfur burner for stable combustion in the range from 10 to 50 kilowatts at high power densities under atmospheric conditions and temperatures higher than 1400°C. Power density in particular allows for the effective use of sulfur as a fuel for electricity production.

It is early days, so it is impossible to say whether this new method will bear fruit. Step one is to prove that method is even feasible, which is the current status of the effort. Some analysis projects that storage is the next big market.

The market research firm IHS Markit projects that the energy storage market is set to expand from an initial base of only 0.34 GW installed in 2012 and 2013 to an annual installation size of 6 GW in 2017 and more than 40 GW by 2022. An IMS Research report expects the market for storing power from solar panels — which was less than $200 million in 2012 — will catapult to $19 billion this year. On the East Coast, more than 60 million Americans in 13 mid-Atlantic states plus the District of Columbia are saving money and receiving high quality service thanks to energy storage systems operating in that region.

This projection would be more believable if inexpensive storage technologies were at a market ready state. They are not.

Not everyone thinks coal is dead, of course. However, basing your primary argument on the fact that the renewable market share just isn’t large enough yet is weak tea.

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