2010 marks the second year in a row that no new coal-fire power plants were constructed in the United States according to the Washington Post. However coal-fired plants remain the largest generator of electricity in the U.S. supplying approximately 50% of all power generated each year. Increasingly however factors such as the economy, lower natural gas prices, and environmentalist opposition, have effectively halted the growth of the coal industry.
Recent technological advancements in the extraction and production of natural gas have unlocked for use large domestic supplies previously thought unusable. This in turn has driven the cost of natural gas down dramatically. Reserves of natural gas found in Shale Rock formations, (or Shale Gas) are thought to be enormous, rivaling the oil reserves of the Middle East.
With many in the industry looking to natural gas as the future, including American Electric Power (AEP) America’s largest electricity generator, interest in new coal plants seems to be waning. Additionally according to a report from Deutsche Bank, if gas prices stay below $6, more plants will be converting from coal to gas.
“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.”
This however does not mean that the coal industry is dead. The coal industry still manged to have enough weight last year to kill the climate legislation (cap and trade) in the US Senate, showing it still has a lot of influence in politics and public opinion. Plus, even as it declines, it remains the number one source of electricity in America.
Further challenges await the coal industry this year from a different front. Beginning this year, the Environmental Protection Agency has new regulations scheduled to take effect to lower greenhouse gas emissions of power plants emitting over 75,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year. Such a rule would force industry to install state-of-the-art emissions controls on new construction in order to obtain the necessary air permits. Along with increased pressure from Washington, this means that existing coal-fired plants will be coming under heavy scrutiny to ensure that they are meeting all current Federal and State emissions regulations. With large fines, and negative publicity being the price of failing to meet the new standards.