As coal use surges, America finds it’s hard to unplug from carbon
So much for the myriad claims about going “beyond coal.” According to a new report from the Rhodium Group, U.S. coal consumption jumped by 17 percent last year compared to 2020 levels. That’s a huge increase, which Rhodium says was “largely driven by a run-up in natural gas prices.” Rather than burn gas, which averaged about $4.93 per million Btu last year — more than two times the price in 2020 — many electricity producers chose to burn coal instead.
The surge in domestic coal use is significant for two reasons. First, it proves again that coal remains an essential fuel for electricity producers both here in the U.S. and around the world. Second, it shows that the Biden administration’s pledge to decarbonize the electric grid by 2035 is little more than wishful thinking.
Hate coal if it makes you happy, but the reality is that power producers have relied on it ever since Thomas Edison used it to fuel the world’s first central power plant in Lower Manhattan in 1882. Indeed, the jump in domestic consumption is part of a surge in global demand for coal, which still accounts for about 36 percent of global electricity generation. Last month, the International Energy Agency reported that “global coal power generation is on course to increase by 9 percent in 2021 to 10,350 terawatt-hours (TWh) — a new all-time high.” The agency also reported that “coal demand may well hit a new all-time high in the next two years.”
The increase in coal use provides yet more evidence for what I call the “Iron Law of Electricity,” which says that “People, businesses and countries will do whatever they have to do to get the electricity they need.” That law was on display in November, at the COP26 summit in Glasgow where India, China and other developing countries rejected a deal that called for a “phase-out” of coal-fired power plants. Instead, the final Glasgow agreement called for countries to “phase down” their use of the carbon-heavy fuel.
While Asian countries account for the biggest share of global coal use — China alone uses more than half the world’s coal — the Iron Law of Electricity also applies to Europe and Japan. During the third quarter of 2021, coal’s share of Germany’s electricity mix increased by 5.5 percent over the same period in 2020. That increase was due, in part, to lower production from the country’s wind-energy sector. France, which usually gets about 70 percent of its electricity from nuclear plants, is also considering burning more coal to replace some of the juice that it was getting from several reactors that have been shut down for repairs. Meanwhile, Japan is planning to build some 21 coal-fired power plants with a total capacity of more than 12,000 megawatts over the next decade or so.
Last week, John Hanekamp, a coal-industry consultant based in St. Louis, told me in a phone interview that global supplies can’t keep pace with demand. He said that domestic power generators are competing for coal with European utilities who are struggling to find enough hydrocarbons to keep the lights on. “There’s a bidding war because there isn’t enough coal to go around,” he said.
In March, the Biden administration pledged to achieve “100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2035.” But the rhetoric simply doesn’t match the reality of our electric grid. In 2020, according to BP, domestic coal-fired electricity generation totaled about 844 terawatt-hours, which was nearly two times more than the 475 terawatt-hours that were produced by all of the solar and wind projects in the country. Gas-fired generation totaled some 1,738 terawatt-hours, or more than three times the total of all solar and wind.
The hard reality is that decarbonizing the global electric grid will require finding economically viable — and socially acceptable — substitutes for coal and natural gas. Sure, renewables are politically popular and they are growing. But both wind and solar are facing increasing headwinds because of land-use conflicts. Since 2015, more than 300 local communities from Maine to Hawaii have rejected or restricted wind projects. The backlash against Big Solar is also gaining momentum. Over the summer, Big Solar projects in Pennsylvania, Nevada and Montana were rejected. Among the most recent rejections: In November, regulators in Henry County, Va., rejected two large proposed solar projects.
Speaking of solar, that “clean” energy sector has an embarrassing supply chain issue. Nearly half of the world’s polysilicon, the key ingredient in solar panels, has been coming from Xinjiang province, where the Chinese government has a program of systematic repression and forced labor. Last year, the U.S. State Department declared that China was practicing “genocide and crimes against humanity” against predominantly Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang, including forced labor to produce polysilicon for solar panels.
In short, it’s easy for politicians and climate activists to vilify hydrocarbons, hype renewables, and talk about quitting coal. But as the Rhodium Group’s report makes clear, economics matter. The U.S. and other countries aren’t going to suddenly quit using coal (or natural gas) to produce electricity because doing so would be too expensive.
I’ll end by making the same point I have been making for more than a decade: If policymakers are serious about decarbonizing the electric grid, they need to get serious about nuclear energy. And they need to do so now.
Robert Bryce is the host of the “Power Hungry Podcast,” co-producer of the documentary, “Juice: How Electricity Explains the World,” and the author of six books, including most recently, “A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations.” Follow him on Twitter @pwrhungry.
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