December 15, 2007
Regulatory Fears Cut Coal Electric Plans In United States

A Bloomberg article mostly about prospects of increased sales by GE of natural gas electric generator turbines highlights a shift away from new coal electric plants due to fears of carbon emissions regulations.

Concern that climate-change legislation could render coal- fueled plants obsolete prompted the cancellation of about 13 this year. Coal plants capable of generating 12,000 megawatts, enough power for 9.6 million average U.S. homes, were proposed for construction in 2005. Only 329 megawatts, enough for 263,200 homes, were built, according to U.S. Energy Department data.

Fears of global warming (now widely relabeled to "climate change" to make the assertion less disprovable?), whether realistic or not, are serving a constructive purpose by cutting back on coal electric plants. We get less conventional pollution as a result. Both nuclear and wind gain from this turn of events. Coal gets used for base load demand. But wind can contribute little to reliable base load demand. Therefore power companies either need to build nukes or a combination of wind with natural gas back-up.

If nuclear power plant building firms can manage to get nuclear power plant cost overruns below the 25% cost overrun of the Olkiluoto-3 plant in Finland (and some of the mistakes seem avoidable next time) then I expect nuclear will become much more competitive against the wind/natural gas combination - especially when natural gas production starts declining. Parts of Europe (France excepted) might go with the more expensive wind approach. Offshore wind costs more than onshore wind or nuclear. Yet the British government has just decided on a big offshore wind push. On the bright side, when natural gas prices skyrocket at least offshore wind will be cheaper than natural gas for electric power generation.

Update: Regulatory obstacles to new coal electric plants might work in our favor for reasons unrelated to pollution. More nuclear and wind facilities will be developed and therefore the coming peak in world coal production will fall less hard on countries that are forced away from coal by environmental opposition. The Energy Watch Group released a report in October 2007 which argued that measured by energy content US coal production already peaked in 2002.

The USA, being the second largest producer, have already passed peak production of high quality coal in 1990 in the Appalachian and the Illinois basin. Production of subbituminous coal in Wyoming more than compensated for this decline in terms of volume and according to its stated reserves this trend can continue for another 10 to 15 years. However, due to the lower energy content of subbituminous coal, US coal production in terms of energy has already peaked 5 years ago it is unclear whether this trend can be reversed. Also specific productivity per miner is declining since about 2000.

The Energy Watch Group expects world coal production to peak around 2025.

Global coal reserve data are of poor quality, but seem to be biased towards the high side. Production profile projections suggest the global peak of coal production to occur around 2025 at 30 percent above current production in the best case.

In the United States coal provides about half of all electric power. A decline in coal production in the US means higher electric prices and inability to migrate current oil uses to electric power instead. We need a lot more nuclear and wind power. We also need accelerated research and development into ways to make photovoltaics cost competitive.

CalTech professor David Rutledge also expects a coal peak much sooner than previously projected.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2007 December 15 09:00 PM  Energy Electric Generators

Alexis Madrigal said at December 15, 2007 10:14 PM:

"now widely relabeled to "climate change" to make the assertion less disprovable?"

I think it is actually just more accurate.

aa2 said at December 15, 2007 11:04 PM:

From what I read Areva is sucking up these cost overuns... it has to make other customers thinking of buying from Areva slightly weary though.

You know something else just occured to me, the Finish plant is a 1600mw plant as I understand. Thats got to be a sizeable part of Finland's energy capacity when it comes online. Especially if they use it for baseload.

aa2 said at December 15, 2007 11:09 PM:

Ok I just looked it up, wow the Fins use a heck of a lot of electricity it seems. The IAEA has their grid capacity at 16.5 GW in 2003. So I guess this plant will add about 10% to their grid.

They have the use of electricity per capita in Finland at 15-16,000 kwh/capita in 2002. To put that in perspective the US was at 12-13,000 kwh/capita in 2002!

Randall Parker said at December 15, 2007 11:38 PM:


But the climate is always changing. The term as used by the global warming fearers creates an implication in the reader's mind ("otherwise absent human influence the climate would change") that is inaccurate.

Seems to me climate has to change in ways that are problematic for us to care. Climate already changes in ways that are problematic even without our influence. The specific fear about our influence is that warming will cause bad side effects like flooding when glacier melt. I therefore think the term "global warming" is more accurate.

Randall Parker said at December 15, 2007 11:45 PM:


I can't find it at the moment but somewhere in there's a chart of per capita electricity usage by state. If memory serves it varies by maybe a factor of 2 or more. You might find that Minnesota and Maine and other ice box states might be comparable to Finland.

Randall Parker said at December 15, 2007 11:49 PM:


One could take the data from Table 1.6.A. Net Generation by State by Sector, August 2007 and 2006 and divide by population of each state to come up with per capita consumption. But I know I've previously linked to the per capita electric consumption data by state. It exists somewhere on the DOE site.

Randall Parker said at December 16, 2007 12:03 AM:


I still can't find what I'm looking for. But check out the final column which per state total yearly energy usage per capita. Part of the huge difference is from weather. Part is from types of industry. Part is from population density. Why do Vermont and New Hampshire (272.8 and 262.5 million BTU per capita per year respectively) score so much lower than Maine at 365.6?

Randall Parker said at December 16, 2007 12:07 AM:


Here's a profile on Finland's energy usage:

Finland, with per capita electricity consumption of about 15,000 kilowatthours (Kwh) in 2000, was among the highest in the world (U.S. was about 10 thousand kilowatt hours.) This is attributed to the extreme winter temperatures, a high degree of industrialization, a relative preponderance of energy intensive industries (i.e., timber, paper, pulp), and a high standard of living. All fuel for thermal electric power plants must be imported, although Finland has attempted to diversify by emphasizing the use of nuclear, hydroelectric, wind, and biomass.

In 2001, total Finnish power generating capacity was 16.2 million kilowatthours. Of this, more than half was oil and natural-gas fired, with 18% hydroelectric, 16% nuclear, around 13% coal (mainly combined heat and power), and 0.2% "other" renewables (wind, solar, biomass, etc.). Finland reportedly is looking to move away from coal for environmental reasons, but currently, there is relatively little investment in renewable energy sources besides wood-based biofuels. Also, in June 2003, plans to build a major new hydro plant in Lapland were shelved due to environmental opposition, increasing calls for the country to build more nuclear power instead.

Randall Parker said at December 16, 2007 12:19 AM:


I finally found what I was looking for by Googling my own web site. Then I found a newer one. Here's U.S. Per Capita Electricity Use By State In 2005 and note that the states that use more electricity per capita than Finland are mostly not ice box states. Wyoming with 27,787 kwh per capita has cold winters. But they must use a lot of electricity in the oil or mining industry. Kentucky comes in at second place at 21,414. Then DC at 20,301 and Alabama at 19,612. Some of the milder weather states have lots of homes heated with electricity. Maybe that's a substantial part of it. Price plays a factor too.

California uses only 7,032 kwh per capita and Rhode Island only 7,497 kwh per capita. I know that California has higher priced electricity. New York at 7,773 kwh per capita has even higher electricity costs. Here are electricity costs by state.

HellKaiserRyo said at December 16, 2007 12:40 AM:

Too bad Finland will not benefit from the upcoming revolution in solar power.

Brian Hayes said at December 16, 2007 4:10 AM:

Stanford University reports that wind farms can provide baseload electric power, if interconnected.

Randall Parker said at December 16, 2007 8:17 AM:


I saw that report when it came out and I think I even linked to it in a post. Look at what they are actually saying:

The researchers used hourly wind data, collected and quality-controlled by the National Weather Service, for the entire year of 2000 from the 19 sites. They found that an average of 33 percent and a maximum of 47 percent of yearly-averaged wind power from interconnected farms can be used as reliable baseload electric power. These percentages would hold true for any array of 10 or more wind farms, provided it met the minimum wind speed and turbine height criteria used in the study.

First off, suppose you install a set of 10 wind farms with 100 MW each. So 1 GW total. They might average 30% output. Okay, so their "yearly averaged wind power" is 300 MW. But if they can only use 33% as baseload then they can contribute 100 MW to baseload. So they only contribute 10% of their nameplate (max) power to baseload.

Also, their model for this depends on geography. These 10 wind farms have to be far enough apart that some will have wind and some won't. They should also have fairly decoupled patterns for when they have and don't have wind. Yet they can't be too far apart that the electricity long range transmission costs aren't too high. Well, given the distribution of wind in the US this idea probably isn't going to work in some areas. So some wind farms won't be able to be networked in with some other wind farms.

Randall Parker said at December 16, 2007 8:38 AM:


As for using the part of wind power for baseload and part for non-baseload. The non-baseload part is not easy. First off, most of non-baseload power is used when people want it. They want air conditioning in hot summer afternoons. They want lights and powered up PCs in the office during the weekdays. They want to watch big plasma TVs in the evening. We really need either natural gas or hydro for that unless some breakthrough comes along in storage.

This third component of demand (the first two being baseload and to satisfy lifestyle demands) for transportation lies somewhere in the future. GM won't sell their first PHEV Chevy Volt until the fall of 2010. We would need to upgrade home electric meters to do dynamic pricing to couple that with PHEV recharging. Then wind's non-baseload power would start to become useful.

There is a wild card here though: Peak Oil. The shift to electric power in transportation might happen faster due to declines in oil production. Wind can get built faster than nuclear. Wind could help supply electric power during a big shift to electric power for electric cars.

carl said at December 16, 2007 12:34 PM:

In terms of storing wind power for base load, compressing air and later using it in a gas turbine sounds the most promising to my uninformed ears:

epobirs said at December 16, 2007 1:16 PM:

Climate change is more accurate because the nature of the fearmongering is changing. Global Warming does the job during a sweltering summer but sounds pretty dumb when people are experiencing power outages due to ice bringing down the lines. Climate change makes a nice year-round fearmongering phrase. Feeling too hot? Climate change! Feeling too cold? Climate change! Invoking both ends of the annual spectrum gives the public less time to forget the discomfort of winter or summer.

This works much better than global warming, regardless of whether the speaker is sincere in his belief or making a bid for reshaping the world's power structure.

People soon forget. In the late 70s we had some very severe winters. Here in Southern California it rained with little pause for weeks at a time, causing all sort of flooding problems and landslides. A hill that was part of a cemetary overlooking the 134 Freeway collapsed and deposited coffins in the road. The hill behind my aunt's house in Benedict Canyon collapsed, filling her pool with mud and continuing right through the house to be waist deep by the front door. This was a pretty big place. A regular four bedroom suburban house would simply have been totaled.

There was a huge amount of jabber about flood control upgrades and greater code restrictions on building on hilltops. Most of it never happened or has been ignored during the boom periods in the house market.

A few years later we had a serious drought. What made it worse was that several resevoirs that had long served the region had been decommissioned to save money during a long wet period starting in the 60s. Because there would never be an end to that and there were votes to be bought with new entitlement programs. During the drought there was much talk and initial investment in desalinization. But the drought ended and the work in prgress was shut down. Now we have a serious drought again.

Those were real problem that did real damage. Not hypotheticals subject to debate. So the folks trying to sell climate change, sincere or otherwise, know they need something that will better stick in the minds of the public.

aa2 said at December 17, 2007 2:05 AM:

Agree with you guys on the climate change wording.. Randall that is interesting statistics about US electrical use per state. Who'd have thought there would be such a huge difference between the bottom and the top? It seems once the Fins get the big nuke plant built it will be able to cover some baseload generation from the oil and gas. And those plants will be used when high energy use times of the day/year come.

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