New power lines for coal? Unlikely By Michael Goggin

In a blog post yesterday, Matthew Wald of the New York Times wrote that new electric transmission lines in the Midwestern U.S. are likely to be used for cheap (and dirty) coal-fired power. AWEA Manager of Transmission Policy Michael Goggin explains why that is probably not going to happen.

It is becoming increasingly clear that there is little risk that coal power plants will take advantage of the new transmission lines that are needed to put America’s abundant wind energy resources to work creating jobs and reducing emissions.

For one, pending and upcoming environmental regulations, such as the Transport Rule for ozone and particulate matter that EPA announced last month, likely regulations on mercury emissions, potential requirements for solid coal ash storage, and potential EPA regulation of carbon dioxide emissions will make it harder for coal plants to compete against cleaner sources of generation like wind power.

These regulations will increasingly “price in” costs of coal use that have previously not been included in its market price. A National Academy of Sciences study released last year placed those costs at $62 billion per year.

Second, wind power is already putting a significant dent in the electricity production at coal power plants, a trend that will only accelerate as more wind energy is added to our electric mix.

This conclusion is supported by the results of a study released earlier this year by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The Eastern Wind Integration and Transmission Study (EWITS) examined the impacts of integrating 20% or 30% wind power into the Eastern U.S. grid, exploring how wind energy would offset the use of other energy sources and how building new transmission would affect our energy mix.

The study found that wind energy will drastically reduce coal generation in all scenarios. Coal-fired production declined by around 23% from the business-as-usual case to the 20% wind cases and by 35% in the 30% wind case. Each of these cases included significant upgrades to our electric grid to bring this wind energy online–upgrades that are needed anyway to improve the reliability of our power system.

The magnitude of the reduction in coal use from adding wind and transmission is staggering–considering that an average coal power plant consumes about half a ton of coal to produce 1 MWh of electricity (enough to power a typical home for about a month) cutting coal generation by 486 million MWhs per year in the 20% wind farm case would cut coal use by around 243 million tons each year. 30% wind would cut coal generation by 745 million MWhs per year, saving approximately 373 million tons of coal each year. To put these savings in perspective, the annual coal savings in the 20% wind case would fill a train of 155-ton coal cars 15,000 miles long, while the train in the 30% wind case could stretch nearly all of the way around the Earth.

As a result of wind turbines and transmission combining to displace this coal generation, greenhouse gas emissions decrease by more than 25% in the 20% wind energy scenario and 37% in the 30% wind energy scenario, compared to a scenario in which our current generation mix was used to meet increasing electricity demand.

EWITS found that adding wind would be able to keep electric sector carbon emissions well below current levels through the year 2024, even though electricity consumption was forecast to increase by more than 28% between now and then.

In short, the combination of building wind plants and the transmission needed to bring them online is one of our best tools for reducing carbon dioxide emissions and fossil fuel use.

By Michael Goggin,