Coal corporations have been running ads in the Denver, CO TV market trashing natural gas for the past couple of weeks. The reason? The state government wants to replace antiquated, dirty coal plants with newer, cleaner natural gas plants. The coal commercials point out a fact that I won’t deny: coal is up to 3X cheaper than natural gas in some markets; but that I will provide more detail on: because coal corporations successfully externalize their costs to every other industry. Instead of charging customers for the real-world costs associated with the dirtiest of all fuels, coal corporations let the health and environmental industries pay for the bad effects of their product.
The good news is enough citizens have recognized coal’s costs to them and have done a better job of organizing and fighting back against the powerful coal lobby in forming public policy. Take a look around – stories of coal plants that utilities have wanted to build but have instead been scrapped for other power plants are beginning to populate the news. Additionally, as older coal plants near the end of their serviceable lives, utilities will be faced with the prospect of either retrofitting them, building new ones, or replacing them with cleaner alternatives. In Colorado, the fate of old plants that generate 900MW of electricity is being decided.
If those plants end up going offline and are succeeded by natural gas plants by 2017, almost 1/3 of Colorado’s coal generation will have been replaced. 5 million tons per year of carbon pollution will be avoided, making a not-so insignificant stride toward a cleaner energy future.
Even better is, as I alluded to above, Colorado isn’t alone in this effort. The piece I link to above also points out that Nevada has decided that instead of building a new 750MW coal plant, officials have decided to build a 750MW natural gas plant and combine it with a 50- to 100-MW solar PV plant. One-half of the CO2 pollution that coal plant would have generated will be avoided by building the natural gas plant. A much higher percentage of the CO2 pollution will be avoided by incorporating the utility-scale solar PV plant. Eventually, even the natural gas plants under consideration today will need to be replaced with solar (PV or more likely thermal) and wind plants. Emitting one-half the pollution in the near-future is a good idea. But we need to emit even less if we are to avoid the worst-case climate crisis that we’re hurtling towards today.