Coal-Fired Electricity Headed for 'Massive' Declines, Electric Cars to Benefit

By · February 11, 2011

If you are into electric cars, chances are pretty good that after a while you get a little tired of responding to claims that plug-in vehicles are simply shifting pollution from tailpipes to smokestacks. While technically this is true—about half of America's electricity currently comes from coal-fired power plants—there are now several studies that conclusively show electric vehicles pollute much less than combustion vehicles even with half of the electricity coming from coal.

But the other, bigger point that people who tout this "problem" with electric cars are ignoring is that the magnitude of smokestack pollution associated with them varies widely depending on where that car is being filled with electricity.

In the Pacific Northwest, for instance, a large proportion of electricity comes from the dozens of dams up and down the mighty Columbia River and its various tributaries. In areas such as this, electric cars will produce almost no pollution. Which leads to another point: as the rest of our energy grid gets cleaner, so will electric cars. The best part? You'll never need to upfit or trade-in an electric car to reap the benefits of our rapidly evolving clean technology sector. It's very hard to make a gas car much cleaner without getting a new gas car.

But what if renewable energy never takes off? Firstly, see point one about electric cars being cleaner than gas cars even with our current energy mix. Secondly, while it's true that we've got such a plentiful supply of coal in this country that you might say we'll never stop using it, government mandates and increasingly stringent clean air laws are having a big effect on the what kinds of power plants are cost effective to operate. In California, for instance, a tough but doable goal has been set that a third of the state's electricity will come from renewable sources such as wind and solar by 2020, and the state has been pushing initiatives that make it more lucrative to generate renewable energy.

Besides the various state initiatives, there are larger forces at work as well. Increasingly stringent air quality regulations have been driving up the cost of making coal power for decades—and it seems to have gotten to the point where coal power is going the way of the dinosaur. In a Bloomberg article, U.S. Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu, predicted that within the next eight years, the U.S. will see "massive" closures of coal power plants. These plants are old and the cost of upgrading them to meet new regulations doesn't make sense when a company could easily open up a much cleaner natural gas power plant in its place—or even a nuclear facility or a wind farm.

In President Obama's 2011 State of the Union address, he called for 80% of America's energy to come from "clean" sources by 2035. Under his definition, coal would only be a clean energy source if it were able to use sophisticated carbon capture technology, which Chu says isn't ready for large power plants yet and won't be for some time. Altogether, the lack of sufficient technology, coupled with more stringent regulations means the U.S. will likely see 50-65 gigawatts of its current 314 gigawatts of coal fired electricity disappear by 2020—that's about a 16-20% reduction in coal-fired power over the next 10 years.

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· · 7 years ago

While the goal of moving towards renewables is necessary and laudable, I think electric car owners may see an environmental benefit, but not an economic one. It appears inevitable that electricity will be more expensive coming from other than coal sources. As you note, it will take economic as well as environmental incentives to stop coal-fired plants. Since coal is the most cost-effective way to produce electricity, plug-in users can expect to pay more for their electrons in the future.

· · 7 years ago

Michael, what kinds of data are you working with? There's no reason that electricity from dams will go up in price. Even if other forms of electricity go up in price by twice what they are now, that's still 30% cheaper than fuel at its current cost... and do you really think gas will stay at $3.20 per gallon? That's kind of a stretch. I'm just not sure why you see it as inevitable. Natural gas power plants are also relatively cheap to run—on par with coal in many cases.

· · 7 years ago

Michael, I also think where I live is proof that it isn't inevitable that non-coal power will be more expensive than coal power. The electricity coming off of Northwest dams is roughly 4-5 times cheaper than the national average cost of electricity. Renewable energy is great because it's just that—renewable. Meaning that over time it pays for the cost of putting it in and you don't have to keep extracting raw materials to operate it. Also, many of the states that have predominantly natural gas fired power plants have electricity that is cheaper than states that have predominantly coal-fired power plants.

Plus, not sure how we got in this topic as the article wasn't about the cost, but about the environmental benefits. But it's a worthwhile discussion anyways!

· · 7 years ago

@Nick Natural gas plants are also more efficient - at least the newer combined-cycle ones are. Although coal gassification plants can also run combined cycle they're a bit rarer.

The fraction of electricity provided by Coal has been dropping slowly but steadily for several years now. 48% in 2009 versus 51% in 2008... and we used 522 Billion kWh *less* electricity in 2009! (Likely due to economic issues though - source)

For a laugh: 522 Billion kWh is over 2 trillion miles of EV driving at 4mi/kWh. A point I plan to bring up next time someone says we don't have enough electricity infrastructure/capacity for everyone to go Electric.

· · 7 years ago

Not talking about hydro, which is unlikely to increase (we aren't China), but renewables. They are all significantly more expensive than coal or even natural gas-generated electricity (not sure where nuclear factors in, but don't see it increasing in spite of the flurry of talk in the past couple years). DOE agrees with you, but check out how they get at "levelized" costs, by including lifetime costs and subsidies rather than actual retail rates. Not sure this flies in the real world.

· · 7 years ago

Michael, let's face it, most of the coal electricity that disappears will be replaced by natural gas electricity—which is as cheap as coal to produce. So saying electricity will become more expensive as coal disappears because renewables are more expensive to install doesn't really jibe with where the new electricity will come from.

My point about hydro wasn't that we'll build more if it to replace coal, just that the longest running renewable energy source we have in the country shows that renewables can be incredibly cheap because over time their costs are more than made up for by the amount of power they produce.

BTW, that link is broken...

Smidge, there certainly is enough capacity to meet electric car demand, and even with the most rosey uptake predictions, almost all new EV electricity demand can be filled with the planned electricity conservation strategies that most utilities are no undertaking.

· Andrew (not verified) · 7 years ago

re Nick:
"The latest round of proposed contracts from a California utility for 250 MW of solar PV projects comes in below the projected price of natural gas."

Clean energy is at or close to cost parity in many areas of the US and this is before the inevitable carbon tax and further technology advances.

· Andrew (not verified) · 7 years ago

Also the article says:
"50-65 megawatts of its current 314 megawatts of coal fired electricity disappear by 2020"
I think you mean gigawatts.

· · 7 years ago

Andrew, thanks for the catch! Changed.

· · 7 years ago

Conservation measures, including charging tiered rates for electricity, have already been helping California to avoid the need for large numbers of new power plants. In our ~1600sf California home, our family of four uses no more than about 300 kWh per month ($40), well below the average home. That's with three computers on during the day, no A/C (it doesn't get too hot here), and lots of LED lighting.

Once we buy an EV, I expect our like electricity usage might get a bit closer to "average" for a home here, of course including EV charging. My feeling is, if most of our country gets really serious about conservation and EV adoption becomes quite widespread, we might be just fine without increasing generation capacity. Considering that LED lighting is expected to continue to come down in price and Energy Star appliances are now widely available, it's reasonable to expect average household electricity consumption to drop (exclusive of EVs).

· · 7 years ago

@Andrew. The article you referenced is quite instructive. I should say, not really the article, but the very informed discussion that followed it. The headline appears to not true at all when real world costs/prices are viewed. Clean energy (hydro excepted, Nick) are not even close to cost parity without substantial subsidies anywhere in the world. Carbon tax? Not likely in this Congress. Technology advances? Welcome, but tend to incremental improvements. I'm not dissing renewables or praising coal or natural gas, just trying to keep a dose of reality in the mix.

Check out what one EV driver paid for his electrons in the real world. (Southern CA's mix of natural gas/renewables and a little imported coal). Plugging in the Volt bumped him up into the marginal rate of .31 cent/kWh.

· · 7 years ago

@Michael Coates · Aren't you forgetting something ? Avg Gas prices will go up faster than electricity prices.

Want to bet on that ?

· Peder Norby (not verified) · 7 years ago

..has the right answer in my opinion. All of our electrical appliances are getting more efficient, with proper planning it’s possible to save 70% in the total utility bill of a home. It begins with efficiency first.

• Michael Coates
We have hydro in the north, Solar in the sunbelt and wind in the vast middle of the country and a smattering of geo thermal. All are renewable non polluting. . My experience is with solar in Southern California. Solar PV is today by far the cheapest way to provide motive power for a car. How cheap? Around $0.35cents a gallon of gas equivalent.

I want to point out that this is my real world experience not a theoretical or academic exercise. We have been driving for 5 years with electric cars, an 06 gem e4 with 8,000 sunshine powered miles and a Mini-E with 25,000 sunshine powered miles. In 2007 we installed 4.5kw of Solar PV to power the home and in 2009 we added 3kw of Solar P.V.

As a driver who has driven for 32 years buying gas, and then the last few years driving on sunshine, I plan on driving for another 25 years or so. The cost to drive those miles on gas is over 100k. The cost to drive those miles on sunshine is less than 10K.

It’s far cheaper already, and it’s very easy to do. The best part, solar is a fixed cost, it is renewable, domestic, supports local jobs and our local economy, and the sun never raises its prices.

Here is a link to our production.

And here is a link to a page with my actual cost.

· · 7 years ago

@EVNow: I wouldn't take the bet, but I think I may look at a historical chart to see if that makes sense. I know gas prices are much more volatile (as are natural gas prices), but that because they aren't regulated like electricity here in the USA.
@Peder Norby: Congrats on all those sun-powred EV miles. Some people forget that NEVs rack up the miles too and sometimes are the most practical EV out there. But I'm curious, did you factor in the cost of the PV panels and installation? And have you amortized it out for the expected life of the panels? Of course, the state subsidies on solar help make it more competitive right now.

· Peder Norby (not verified) · 7 years ago

Hi Michael,
The NEVs are great, we are in a costal city with grid connected low speed roads and we can get practically everwhere we need to go with our gem. Safety is an issue but they are just as safe as walking, biking, or a scooter or motorcycle if used on low speed roads.

Th graph is just that. Our final cost for the intallation done in 07 was $4650 per KW and in 09 when we added our "gas station" it was $3950 per kw. The main difference was the 09 intallation we got the whole 30% federal tax credit, in 07 it was capped at $2000 for residential systems. The state incentive in Ca is now pretty much expired.

That $3950 per kw cost times the 1.65kw size sytem is the installed cost of $6500 and then I added 1 additional inverter in year 15. The 25 years is the warenteed time of the sytem although it will continue to produce after.

In about two more years our sytem will be "cost neutral" meaning the system cost cost is the same as the utility bills and gasoline bills I would have paid for the past 4 years plus the next two. After that its basically free energy.

Yes we got a tax credit, we also get one for our mortgage interest, my consulting expenses, our college cost for our children. and I don't even want to start on the cash for clunkers or write offs for vehicles greater than 6500 lbs gvw, not to mention tax breaks or subsiides for other energy sources.

There are thousands (perhaps more?) of tax breaks and credits in the system, solar PV and electric cars are part of that as well.


· · 7 years ago

@Peder Norby: I know NEVs from several years of working with GEM. Still kicking myself for not adding one to my fleet when they were really cheap. Thanks for all of your background and accounting; it looks like you've got yourself a serious system that's clearly going to be paying for itself and more.

· Priusmaniac (not verified) · 7 years ago

Does anybody think that our asbestos mines were depleted when we decided to stop digging for it? No they were not and there is still a lot in the ground waiting to be mined. So why aren't we doing it? Well, because it was forbidden. Why was it forbidden? Because asbestos use had strings attached to it, so we stopped using it.
The coal we use today comes from mines that are far from being depleted. So will we still have coal in the future? Yes, there will be plenty in the ground waiting to be mined. Will we be doing it? No, because it will be forbidden because coal had strings attached to it. We will have stopped using it.

· · 7 years ago

@Michael Coates · When you take a look at historical oil prices also carefully look at production in the last 5 years. Oh BTW, do you know Chinese car market is larger than US's ? I'll let you connect the dots.

I think all of us can agree on one thing.

The grid will get cleaner and the oil will get dirtier. That is enough of a reason to buy EVs now (and thus my screen name).

· · 7 years ago

@EVNow: I've got no fight with anyone who wants to buy an EV or any plug-in now; I'm just a firm believer in keeping a close watch on reality and not living in a projected future world that most likely will not resemble the one we are projecting. I just keep remembering the future of flying cars and electricity "too cheap to meter" that the 1950s promised. We've come a long ways, but still have a long way to go. Also, it is worthwhile to recommend a sidenote: read "The Black Swan" by Taleb (no relation to the movie) and projections of the future will not follow the linear nature of most prognosticators.

· Anonymous (not verified) · 7 years ago

Wind power is quite low cost over time. Ask the power companies in Colorado.

Wave and tidal power are also pretty low cost, right here and now.

They have zero fuel costs, and only have maintenance costs, and they are actually more consistent base load than coal or nuclear -- both of these have to be shut down for regular maintenance.


· · 7 years ago

@Michael Coates ·"I'm just a firm believer in keeping a close watch on reality"

Then how come you are not saying anything about climate change, coming water shortages, peak oil, utterly unsustainable life styles, an economic system that depends on infinite growth on a finite planet ? You are just worried about some price increase in electricity - duh, dealing with climate change won't be free or simple - unlike what some politicians may say !

· · 7 years ago

@EVNow: Near-term issues can affect long-term results. All of those macro issues don't mean much if they're not translated into the "reality" upon which I try to keep a close watch. All I'm saying is if EV users find costs of charging edging up towards the cost of gasoline, it's going to be a hard slog to get any traction for the vehicles here, in spite of any desire to go green or save the planet. I'm sorry but those personal issues like prices do trump bigger ones like climate change in the real world. The changes that need to be made to right this are not easy or cheap, but they're also not in place yet.

· Anonymous (not verified) · 7 years ago

While it is true that many coal plants will be closing, those are the smaller ones and those that don't produce the majority of electricity. For analysis see here

Coal will continue to be a major generator of electricity since there is no short term replacment. Now in 25 years with the appropriate investments it could be different.

· Priusmaniac (not verified) · 7 years ago

The list is long, with industrial windpower, 60 MW per mill, industrial geothermal production, with 500 MW power, Thorium nuclear power, which is more cost effective then Uranium nuclear power but was not chosen up to now because it is useless to make bombs, the systematization of sunroofs, not 10% of the time but 90% of the time, nuclear fusion with Iter type systems perhaps but also with inertial systems, B5-proton fusion systems, biomass energy, and last but not least a drastic efficiency improvement trough for example systematic LED and OLED lighting or widespread use of control electronics.

· John Millard (not verified) · 7 years ago

Unfortunately I live in an area (Missouri) where 85% of the electrical power comes from coal. A new coal-fired power plant is presently being constructed near Springfield, Missouri. This is conservative, tea-bagger, hillbilly country. If someone put solar collectors on their roof the locals would suspect witchcraft. I might be exaggerating... slightly.

· William Edwards (not verified) · 7 years ago

Sorry, but even if 100% of my electricity comes from coal, driving an EV with off-peak charging is MUCH cleaner than any petrol vehicle. Coal plant churns out pollution and electricity 24 hours per day, whether it is used or not.

· Priusmaniac (not verified) · 7 years ago

John Millard, if you have 100% coal electricity, it helps a lot to place solar panels on your house to compensate your entire electricity use through a connected system. Either you use it yourself either someone else will be using it when you are not but it will indeed compensate for your own use and make a big difference. Another possibility is having a private windmill that can also compensate in a grid connected way your entire electricity use. Perhaps micro hydropower is possible. If all this isn't possible I would seriously consider investing in a cogeneration system like a vegetable oil diesel cogenerator for electricity and heat or even better a pellet using stirling cogen unit. Perhaps you also have real green energy producers along the big coal plant that would be happy to provide you an alternative. In case this is all absolutely impossible, think about changing your investment yield cursor to more investment less electricity. You can do this by buying LED lighting sooner and of course a solar roof sooner.
William Edwards, coal plant follow demand, if there is less demand for coal based electricity they will burn less coal what makes a big difference. Perhaps they will even make the move of burning wood instead of coal which changes the plant into a green producer actually.

· Anonymous (not verified) · 7 years ago

Briefly reading over the comments here, everyone seems to agree that Natural Gas plants are the more cost efficient way to go and will be replacing the coal plants. What is interesting is that no one has looked at the rolling black outs in Texas due to lack of Natural Gas. Yes, Natural gas is a cleaner, more cost efficient (for now) source of fuel, but it is not available in that quantities needed. The pipe lines can't keep up with the demand. Many homes are heated with natural gas and the power plants can't consume as much in the winter because of that.

· · 7 years ago

If Natural Gas is used to supplement intermittent supplies of wind and solar that will reduce the stress on our Natural Gas infrastructure and it will prolong our depletion of Natural Gas supplies. The fact that solar-thermal generation plants can easily use Natural Gas in the same boilers as the solar heat uses will reduce costs. While no single solution beats coal from a cost and availability perspective, clever combinations of alternatives can. The alternatively generated electricity can heat and air condition homes as well and easier than natural gas. One can, of course, argue that directly burning natural gas to heat your home is more efficient than converting it to electricity first, however, one can also argue for co-generation where natural gas is burned in a turbine or ICE to generate electricity and then the waste heat is used for home and business heating, possibly after passing through a steam turbine to generate a little more electricity on the way through. Co-generation is used in most large-scale natural gas power plants today but smaller home-versions are being toyed with by air conditioner companies as well. Use of co-generation where waste heat is used for heating and air conditioning can get efficiencies well over 80%, one of the most efficient means of generating electricity!
First lets get the electric vehicles on the road.
This will end our dependency on oil. American coal and Natural Gas is still better than foreign oil.
Then we can continue cleaning up the way we get the electricity as there are so many proven methods available.
Besides Texas houses use so much electricity already today that adding an electric vehicle will hardly be noticed.

· · 7 years ago

@"Anonymous", As I understand it, Texas is something of a special case because the state has its own electric grid and doesn't share loads to any significant degree with other states. The shortage of natural gas infrastructure there is not necessarily reflective of what is happening elsewhere.

Here, in a major NG producing state, prices are way down because of reduced demand and too much supply. Drilling has slowed way down for the time being. As economic growth speeds up I would expect demand to pick up, leading to rising prices and resumed drilling.

The problem with natural gas is that it is very destructive to the environment to produce, not that there isn't enough of it. Nevertheless, domestically produced NG is better than importing oil, for many reasons, and is cleaner than burning coal.

But, like many others here, I'm hoping for a shift to more renewable energy sources and away from fossil fuels. I'm trying to do my part, I wish others would also.

· Coking Coal Index (not verified) · 6 years ago

The investment into alternative power generating technologies such as nuclear energy may need to be measured against the potential cost when things turn against you as unfortunately happened this year in Japan. The use of thermal coal (steam coal) that is mostly burnt for power generation may be valid for other countries who may not be able to allocate resources and funds to alternative and more greener sources of power. Coal newsletters and coal statistics show developing economies are more likely to increase their investment into & their use of thermal coal & metallurgical coal in coming years because of coal's affordability and ability to quickly meet increasing demands for electricity and steel.

· Taco (not verified) · 6 years ago

Has anyone on here heard about the cold fusion device being developed by Rossi? I hear he is building a 1 megawatt plant in Greece, to be test in october 2011, said to be the most efficient device ever for electricity production, low cost to build, no pollution, no nuclear waste, check out Rossi electric device.

· · 6 years ago

@Taco, Cold fusion is a notorious hoax. Those of us who lived through the initial furor over it many years ago are inclined to be skeptical of such magical solutions to the world's energy needs.

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