California Becoming Third Coal-Free State at a Big Cost

A bulldozer works a coal mound at the Appalachian Electric Power coal-fired Big Sandy Power Plant June 3, 2014 in Cattletsburg, Kentucky. New regulations on carbon emissions proposed by the Obama administration have reportedly angered politicians on both sides of the aisle in energy-producing states such as Kentucky and West …
Luke Sharrett/Getty Images
Newport Beach, CA

The Energy Information Agency reported that California is about to become the third state to eliminate all coal use for generating electricity — but that effort has come at a huge cost.

The 2008 statement by Rudy Giuliani in a presidential debate that the “United States is the Saudi Arabia of coal” is true. According to the U.S. Energy Department, America has 267.3 billion short tons of proven coal reserves, or 26.8 percent of the world’s total. Saudi Arabia has about 20 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves.

But the consumption of steam coal used for electrical generation has fallen 29 percent since 2007, from 1.045 billion short tons to 739 million short tons in 20015.

The four states with the heaviest use of coal to generate electricity are Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Georgia. The only two states that do not use coal to generate electricity are Vermont and Idaho.

California, with its terrific oil and gas reserves, was never a big users of coal for electrical production. California’s total megawatt hours attributed to coal dropped from 1 percent in 2007 to just two-tenths of one percent in 2015.

Governor Jerry Brown would like to say that the decline in coal use is due to his leadership at the COP 21 Paris France Sustainable Innovation Forum 2015 on December 12, 2015, where 195 countries agreed to reduce their carbon output “as soon as possible” and to do their best to keep global warming “to well below 2 degrees C.”

But the real reason for coal’s continuing collapse is that utilities are rapidly switching from coal-fired to natural gas-fired power plants because of the impact of fracking knocking the price of natural gas down 75 percent, from about $8 per thousand cubic feet in 2007 to just over $2 per thousand cubic feet today.

Electricity generated by coal and petroleum coke equaled about 11 percent of California’s electricity in 2000. But in 2005, Southern California Edison sold off their 56 percent interest in the 1,636-megawatt Mohave Generating Station in Laughlin, Nevada in anticipation of the expected passage of the California Greenhouse Gas Emissions Performance Standard Act of 2006.

The disruptive crash in natural gas prices due to accelerating fracking activity drove electrical generation from natural gas up from 48.04 percent to 61.3 percent, according to the California Energy Commission.

Advocates of coal power point out that the tripling of so called renewable energy to 19.1 percent of electrical production has resulted in California having the sixth-highest average retail price of electricity in the United States, at 15.15 cents per kilowatt hour.

The only mitigating factor for California is that the state consumes less electricity per household than most states due to the mild coastal weather and greater household appliance efficiency requirements. As a result, the state’s average household electrical bill in 2014 was $23 less than the national average.

Dan Jacobson, legislative director for Environment California, commented, “It’s great that we’re dropping coal but it’s bad that we’re picking it up with natural gas.” Jacobson argues, “What we need to do is move away from fossil fuels and go towards clean, renewable energy.”

With the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency’s roll-out of the Clean Power Plan to cut carbon emissions by 32 percent between now and 2030, hundreds of mainly coal-fired power plants will close.