Coal Tattoo

Washington Post: “Coal is a dead man walkin'”

A Dec. 22, 2010 photo shows the Portland generating plant on River Rd., just south of Portland, Pa., on the Delaware River. The federal Environmental Protection Agency will schedule a public hearing early in the coming year to discuss whether the plant should be forced to reduce its emissions. (AP Photo/TheRecord, Leslie Barbaro)

There’s been a fair amount of buzz so far in the new year about a Saturday Washington Post article, Coal’s burnout:  Have investors moved on to cleaner energy sources?

The nut graphs:

The headline news for the coal industry in 2010 was what didn’t happen: Construction did not begin on a single new coal-fired power plant in the United States for the second straight year.

This in a nation where a fleet of coal-fired plants generates nearly half the electricity used.

But a combination of low natural gas prices, shale gas discoveries, the economic slowdown and litigation by environmental groups has stopped – at least for now – groundbreaking on new ones.

“Coal is a dead man walkin’,” says Kevin Parker, global head of asset management and a member of the executive committee at Deutsche Bank. “Banks won’t finance them. Insurance companies won’t insure them. The EPA is coming after them. . . . And the economics to make it clean don’t work.”

Coal industry lobbyist Luke Popovich took issue with that:

Word of coal’s death might be premature, says Luke Popovich, spokesman for the National Mining Association. He said that several coal-fired plants begun earlier are still under construction. Duke Energy, for example, is expecting to finish its Cliffside and Edwardsport coal plants in 2012.

Other companies have scrambled to get permits before the EPA regulations take effect, and projects in Texas, Kansas and Illinois have succeeded. A project in Mississippi is poised to break ground, though the Sierra Club is still fighting in court to revoke the plant’s permits.

Moreover, Popovich adds, the federal Energy Information Administration expects that the nation will need to build 30 to 40 new plants to supply the 21 gigawatts of new electricity demand expected by 2035.

“Coal will remain the dominant source for electricity generation for the foreseeable future,” he says. “So the big problem with the ‘death of coal’ message is that it is not, as we say, reality-based.”

But the article contained this interesting passage regarding American Electric Power:

American Electric Power, the nation’s largest generator of electricity, is also taking a cautious approach. The only plant AEP has under construction is the highest efficiency model, known as “ultra supercritical.” Under the new EPA guidelines, these high-efficiency plants could become the standard, reducing coal use.

“We have no other coal-fueled generation planned at this time,” says Pat D. Hemlepp, a spokesman for AEP. “The decline in demand has delayed the need for additional new generation.”

If AEP does need new generation capacity, it will turn to natural gas. In 2010, the wellhead price of natural gas has averaged $4.25 a thousand cubic feet, about 40 percent below the average price from 2005 to 2009 and well under half the peak price.

Discoveries of new ways to tap natural gas trapped in shale rock have unlocked supplies that could keep prices in check for years to come.

“When we do need new capacity, it is highly likely that we will look to natural gas plants instead of coal, especially if natural gas prices remain as low as projected,” Hemlepp says. “The plants are less expensive to build, and current forward price projections favor gas over coal.”