What’s really killing King Coal?

Rick Perry wants to save coal from solar and wind, but natural gas is the real culprit.


This Saturday will mark Trump’s 100th day in office. In collaboration with our partners at Climate Desk, we took a look at what his administration has accomplished and what the implications are for climate change and the environment out West and across the country. Read the rest here.

Rick Perry, Secretary of Energy, is worried about coal. Specifically, he’s fretting about coal-fired power getting bullied off the electrical grid by “regulatory burdens” and incentivized renewable energy. In an April 14 memorandum to his chief of staff, Perry brooded over the “erosion of critical baseload resources” — power sources like coal plants that send a constant, 24/7 stream of juice into the grid — and the “diminishing diversity of our nation’s electric generation mix.” He called for a review of the situation.

Perry should know better. As coal fades, the electric generation mix is getting more diverse, not less. Baseload power sources, like coal and nuclear, are dying out not because of regulations, but the market place and new technologies are transforming the electric grid. And while government policies have encouraged development of sources of alternative energy, the biggest beneficiary — and the most significant factor in coal’s demise —has arguably been cheaper, abundant supplies of natural gas. 

Smokestacks of the San Juan Generating Station in northwestern New Mexico. The plant's future looks dim after its owner, Public Service Company of New Mexico, announced it hopes to go coal-free by 2031.

Judging by Perry’s memo, and by much of the Trump administration’s rhetoric and actions during the first 100 days, they yearn for a time when such memos were pounded out on manual typewriters and when factories and other big facilities demanded a constant flow of electricity delivered on a predictable schedule. The giant centralized coal power plants, as well as hydropower and nuclear sources, that colonized the West were perfect for the task. Once a coal plant is up and running, the flow of energy it provides is rock-steady, and since the fuel can be piled up nearby, it tends to be reliable, even if it does emit greenhouse gases, acid rain-forming sulfur dioxide, and other pollutants.

But laptops and cell-phones have replaced the typewriters, and the factories have mostly gone away. Air conditioners, electronic gadgets, and even electric cars now make up the bulk of the electrical load, and gobble power on a hard-to-predict schedule. Intermittent sources of power like wind and solar only make it harder to figure out how much energy is needed at a given time. In order to “follow the load,” or respond to ups and downs in demand by increasing or decreasing the power supplied, grid managers need flexible power sources. Coal plants take hours to start up and adjusting output is difficult and inefficient.

Natural gas, on the other hand, is agile. A gas turbine, which resembles a jet engine hooked to a generator, can be fired up within minutes when needed. Combined cycle natural gas plants, which use “waste” heat from the gas turbine to fire a steam-powered turbine, can be adjusted and also run consistently and steadily, providing the baseload power that coal once provided. Natural gas also releases about half the carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour as coal when burned, and virtually none of the other particulates or pollutants or solid waste (the production of natural gas is a different matter). 

So starting in the 1990s, utilities went on a natural gas power plant building spree in order to increase the flexibility of their grids. As a result, natural gas plants can now produce almost twice as much energy as the nation’s coal plants: 42 percent of the country’s energy capacity, compared to coal’s 24 percent. But, for years, most of that capacity went unused except as emergency backup power, largely because natural gas was expensive and more difficult to transport and store on site.

Enter the federal government, which has long pushed policies that encourage natural gas extraction, from tax credits and deductions, to loosened regulations and funding for development of new technologies. Today’s Department of Energy — led by Perry — was created in the 1970s as the Energy Research and Development Administration to promote “unconventional gas research.” The Windfall Profits Tax Act of 1980 sparked the coalbed methane (natural gas) boom in the late 1980s by offering sizable tax credits to drillers going after unconventional oil and gas. A1988 Environmental Protection Agency determination to exempt oil and gas wastes from federal regulation also paved the way for a boom.

When, in the 1990s, the “Father of Fracking,” George Mitchell, set out to crack the Barnett shale formation in Perry’s home state of Texas, he had a lot of help from the feds. Both the federally funded Gas Research Institute and the DOE worked with Mitchell to come up with the drilling and hydraulic fracturing techniques necessary to extract natural gas from shale formations, and the DOE developed the diamond drill bits that enabled the drilling.  

As utilities built more natural gas power plants, demand for the fuel increased. So drillers used Mitchell’s methods to go after previously unrecoverable gas in the Bakken shale in North Dakota and the Marcellus shale in the East. Again, federal largesse, in the form of billions of dollars annually in tax credits and regulatory relief, fueled the boom. Natural gas production shot up beginning in 2006 as a result, and prices fell.

Today the U.S. produces 50 percent more natural gas than it did a decade ago, while the cost of that gas has dropped by half. Utilities are shifting from using natural gas as a backup power source to a baseload power source that can replace coal. If Perry’s analysis is as rigorous as he promises, it will likely find that this flood of cheap natural gas — helped along by burgeoning solar and wind — has cut the electric power sector’s use of coal by half in the past 11 years. Environmental regulations play only a minor role in driving more utilities to give up on those dirty old coal plants. Just last week, the formerly coal-loving Public Service Company of New Mexico announced it plans to go coal free by 2031, regardless of any regulatory rollback.

Unlike Perry, the utilities that are retiring their coal plants aren’t worried about how to replace the lost power. The existing natural gas generating capacity, along with the massive buildup of solar and wind, is more than ample. For example, California has so much new solar that it has had too much power pumping through its grid at times this spring, and had to curtail – or throw away – some. The state’s grid operator is working to expand its grid so it can sell some of this extra power outside the state, and buy wind and solar from other states to smooth the ups and downs of in-state renewable sources.

Natural gas is losing a bit of ground in the energy mix this summer thanks to a slight uptick in prices, but it mostly will be replaced by hydropower, abundant after the wet winter, not coal.

Then there’s Perry’s home state. Beginning in 2001, the year Perry became governor, wind power underwent a boom. Now, thanks in part to the very same sorts of federal tax credits, state requirements and incentives that Perry’s memo frets over, Texas generates more power from wind than any other state. In January, Texas received 17 percent of its power from wind, 42 percent from natural gas and 31 percent from coal. Natural gas and wind are winning the competition with coal there, too.

Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is currently writing a book about the Gold King Mine spill.

High Country News Classifieds
    Are you a supporter of public lands and interested in a career in the nonprofit sector? Grand Teton National Park Foundation is hiring a Development...
    Ranch General Manager for a large family-owned Ranch on the island of Molokai, Hawaii. Diversified operations include: an agro-tourism educational retreat center, renewable energy and...
    POSITION SUMMARY: The Communications and Project Coordinator will support the Executive Director (ED) in campaign and administrative related tasks. The Coordinator is responsible for research...
    A timely, damning, and ultimately hopeful investigation of housing in the United States. Essential reading in the West.
    Status: Full time Reports to: Conservation Program Manager Salary Range: $60,000-65,000 Duration: Position is funded for 12 months, with the expectation of annual renewal Benefits:...
    The Vice President of Conservation will arrive at a time of remarkable growth and opportunity within the organization. Guided by the bold and ambitious goals...
    Help us inspire and empower people to protect America's wild snowscapes! We are a small, mighty and growing team dedicated to our work and looking...
    The EAC's Executive Director provides overall leadership for the operation of the organization. The Executive Director is responsible for implementing programs and policies set by...
    These carefully researched stories reflect a deep and abiding understanding of Ute culture and history. These authintic, colorful legends also illustrate the Ute's close connections...
    High Country News seeks an organized and collaborative Fundraising Associate to drive donor discovery and the cultivation and acquisition of mid-level and recurring gifts. This...
    GYC is hiring! Please see our careers page for more details greateryellowstone.org/careers
    Western Watersheds Project seeks a Director to continue and expand WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Wyoming and northern Utah,...
    Tranquility & land are becoming more and more rare. This land is a haven for peace, where nature beckons & flourishes. Enjoy the mountain views...
    is a Denver-based mail order surgical instrument sharpening service established in 2009. Specialties include surgical scissors, dental elevators, trocar sets, and gynecological biopsy forceps.
    California Coalition for Rural Housing (CCRH) seeks a strategic and visionary Executive Director: View all job details here- https://bit.ly/CCRHED
    Thrilling new crime novel by ex-HCN editor Ray Ring : A rural White horsewoman and an urban Black man battle White supremacists in a tough...
    Field seminars for adults in natural and human history of the northern Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
    Popular vacation house, everything furnished. Two bedroom, one bath, large enclosed yards. Dog-friendly. Contact Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
    Native plant seeds for the Western US. Trees, shrubs, grasses, wildflowers and regional mixes. Call or email for free price list. 719-942-3935. [email protected] or visit...