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Published on March 6th, 2019 | by Tina Casey

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US Utilities Buy More Renewables, But Coal Cloud Looms Ahead

March 6th, 2019 by  


First, the good news: major US utilities are buying more renewables. As in, lots more. That’s not exactly a shocker so let’s move on to the bad news: more than 300 new coal production projects could go into operation globally between now and 2022, mainly in Australia, India, China, and South Africa. Canada, Indonesia, and the US could also weigh in with more than a dozen projects each.

Errrrr…what?

All The Good News About Renewables

For a handy rundown on all the latest good news about renewables in the US, we turn to Sheryl Carter and Sophia Ptacek of the Natural Resources Defense Council. In a recent blog post for the NRDC they observed that “utility clean energy commitments have strengthened and multiplied since we inventoried some of the most newsworthy announcements last year.”

The two authors cited some names that should ring a bell, including Xcel Energy, the Platte River Power Authority, and MidAmerican Energy.

To that, let’s add the Tennessee Valley Authority, which has been retiring its coal fleet in favor of natural gas and renewables.

Aside from NRDC’s observations, let’s also note that the US Department of Energy also factors in. As recorded many (many) times on these pages, Energy Secretary Rick Perry seems to have perfected a weirdly fascinating balance between affirming Trump’s fossil fuel policies at the oft-realized risk of looking ridiculous, while vigorously promoting his agency’s clean power mission, both in the areas of wind power and solar power.

Under Trump’s nose, for example, the US recently launched a new wind power consortium aimed at accelerating onshore and offshore wind development in the US. That will ripple out to impact the ability of utilities to add more renewables to their portfolios.

It’s not all hot air, either. DOE tapped New York State to lead the consortium, and the state has a $6 billion wind development plan of its own to oil the renewable energy wheels.

In another recent example, last March DOE updated an initiative that helps rural electric cooperatives slip more solar power into their portfolios.

That’s a significant assist because rural electric cooperatives cover about 19 million ratepayers (homes, businesses, schools, and farms) spread over 56% of the land area of the US. A helping hand from the feds will make a big difference because rural coops face unique barriers to solar adoption, including existing contracts with utilities and other suppliers.

Yet another emerging factor is the influence of community choice aggregation plans, in which local governments can negotiate for more renewables with their utility.

For good measure, let’s throw in the Department of Defense. Though DoD’s renewable energy activity seems to have slowed over the past two years (I know, right?), DoD was a clean tech early adopter that pushed the market for both utility-scale solar and rooftop solar.

More Good News About Renewables

As Ms. Carter notes in another blog post, renewables make good business sense. They are increasingly cost-competitive with coal and, in some markets, natural gas.

That explains why major US businesses are also pressuring utilities to add more renewables to their grids, with help from organizations like the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance,* the RE100 campaign, and high-dollar investors like Warren Buffet.

In addition, stakeholders in the construction and appliance industries are beginning to wake up and smell the opportunity coffee involved in promoting the building electrification trend, in which homes, businesses and other buildings use electricity for heating, cooling, and cooking as well as lighting.

As global warming awareness grows, those all-electric customers are going to put more pressure on their utilities to deliver clean electricity from the source, too.

The Coal Power Whack-a-Mole

All of this is well and good, but it could be so much more good with firm national and state-level policies in support of renewables and other clean tech in the US.

Global action wouldn’t hurt, either. One red flag went up earlier this week when the consulting firm GlobalData released a a list of 300 coal projects potentially or already under way globally (we got the news via GlobalData email, should be available on company’s website soon).

Here’s the rundown from GlobalData:

There are over 300 coal projects potentially commencing operations between 2019 and 2022. Of these, 92 are currently under construction; with the remainder under various stages of development. Of the total, 57 are located in Australia, 55 in India, 54 in China, 30 in South Africa, 18 each in Canada and Indonesia and 15 in the US.

[reverse snip]

…Coal production in India, Indonesia and Australia is forecast to grow at respective compound annual growth rates (CAGRs) of 10.9%, 3.9%, and 2.3% between 2018 and 2022, with the high growth in India helping to reduce the country’s reliance on imports to feed its expanding coal-fired power generation.

Yikes!

According to GlobalData, some of the new coal impacts will be offset by more than 100 old coal project retirements, the bulk of which are located in India, China, South Africa, the US and Australia.

Also on the bright-ish side, it’s unclear how many of the yet-to-begin projects will be financed, considering that the global finance community is dropping coal like a hot potato.

According to GlobalData, 13 coal project retirements are in the works for the US. CleanTechnica is reaching out to the firm for its insights on the US retirements, so stay tuned for more on that.

Photo (cropped): Max Phillips (Jeremy Buckingham MLC) via Beyond Coal & Gas Image Library, flickr.com. 
 
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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.



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