Even With No New Coal Plants, We’ll Still Be Wolfing Down Fossil Fuels

Buried in the latest set of government energy statistics is a bombshell about our energy future. It’s a development that shows that big changes are possible,  yet still take decades to pay off.

The Annual Energy Outlook from the U.S. Energy Information Administration sums up the government’s best estimates of energy trends through 2035.  Buried in the projections is a seismic change in energy policy, and it’s about coal. The EIA is projecting that utilities won’t build any new coal-fired electricity plants in the United States, aside from the projects already under construction or built as “clean coal” experiments. The projections say that all our new electricity plants are expected to be either renewables like wind and solar, or natural gas (which releases about half the carbon emissions of coal).

That’s a huge, historic shift in how we get our electricity.

Coal is the biggest part of our energy mix, producing more than 40 percent of all our electricity (and in some states, up to 70 percent). Coal is also one of the most controversial fuels. That’s because it’s the “dirtiest” of the fossil fuels when it comes to greenhouse gases, yet it’s also the cheapest domestic energy source we’ve got. This has set up a fierce battle between people like Al Gore and climate scientist James Hanson, who call for a ban on new coal plants, versus those worried that shifting from coal would mean higher electricity rates in coal-dependent states and lost jobs in the coal industry.

In some ways, the projection is an environmentalist’s dream come true. And it won’t be enough.

That’s because the projections also say that energy demand will go up steadily, by 1 percent a year.  All those new wind farms and natural gas plants will just keep up with new demand. While we won’t be building any new coal plants, we won’t be taking any off-line, either.

Yes, we will be getting more efficient, and yes, we’ll be building a lot of clean energy alternatives.  But if you look at the long-term projections, the amazing thing is how little the energy mix will change in 25 years. Right now, we get 84 percent of our energy from fossil fuels. In 2035, we’ll still be getting 78 percent of our energy from fossil fuels. In some ways, we’ll have hardly moved the needle at all. We’re getting 45 percent of our electricity from coal today, and in 25 years, we’ll be getting 43 percent from coal: a whopping 2 percent shift.

Despite the fact that Congress has balked at any game-changing strategy like cap-and-trade, a lot’s been done over the past few years. Efficiency standards for vehicles and appliances have been jacked up (under both the Bush and Obama administrations). The Obama administration’s economic stimulus included more funding for renewable energy. Biofuels are getting a push from the government, and the incandescent light bulb will be a museum piece in a few years. The Environmental Protection Agency will start regulating greenhouse gases as a pollutant.All those policies will have an impact, and they’re factored into the energy outlook, according to the Energy Information Administration.

This is why the long view is paramount. It takes years to make changes to our energy system. Power plants take years to build, and stay in service for decades. We can make more efficient cars and buildings, but we also have to wait for people to replace the ones they already have. We can make huge choices now – like say, not building new coal plants – and still not see a payoff for a generation.

That’s all the more reason why we can’t let the energy issue slide into the background. Unless we tackle tougher, more fundamental questions now, we’ll simply be running in place.

(Related: Can Geothermal Energy Pick Up Real Steam?)

(Related: Shining a Light on the Cost of Solar Energy)

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