Coal-Fired Electricity Headed for 'Massive' Declines, Electric Cars to Benefit
February 11, 2011
by Nick Chambers
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.