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Fossil Fuels Compete for Generation

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Today, power plants in the United States rely primarily on fossil fuels. In 2011, more than 2/3 of the electricity generated domestically came from coal and natural gas. But, the ratio of electricity production from coal to natural gas to petroleum has shifted over time. This month, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration (EIA) published a report that explores this “elasticity of substitution.”

In the report, the authors discuss coal’s dominant role in power generation over the past 60 years and the impacts of 1970s oil price shocks on coal use. They go on to state that:

“By 1990, changes in the regulatory structure and legislation affecting the electricity industry started providing more opportunities for substitution between petroleum and natural gas as a fuel for peaking generation. During the 1990s and 2000s, the generation costs for plants fueled by natural gas fell dramatically as a result of lower natural gas fuel prices and the increased use of combined cycle technology for power generation. Natural gas production from domestic shale gas formations began to rapidly increase starting in 2005, which has led to a relatively sustained period of low natural gas prices. All of these factors have led to a continuing electric power industry trend of substituting coal-fired generation with natural gas-fired generation.”

Included in this report was an interesting graphic that overlays changes in the price of coal, natural gas, and petroleum with their annual share of fossil fuel-fired electric power generation.

Melissa C. Lott About the Author: An engineer and researcher who works at the intersection of energy, environment, technology, and policy. Follow on Twitter @mclott.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. jerryd 4:06 pm 07/16/2012

    Rather short, I guess the author was lazy that day.

    Since this graph was made NG and coal became equal at 32% each so even worse for coal and better for everyone.

    The real cost of coal would over triple if all it damage, etc cost were in it. It’s estimated to be $345B to over $500B/yr on deaths, hospitalizations, land, air, water road, forest, bridge, building, etc costs in our taxes, health care etc payments.

    Also more recent NG CC plants have hit 60% eff vs 40% for coal plus the NG units can now throttle down to 50% ratings and still be eff which saves large amounts of fuel, wear for the utilities match generation to load.

    Also not mentioned here is renewables which prices are dropping like a rock and even with the massively subsidized coal are nearing parity.

    Link to this

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