July 13, 2014

Handwriting may be on the wall for coal

The phrase “the handwriting on the wall,” or some similar version, may have come from an Old Testament story some 2,500 years ago that foretold the fall of Babylon to Persia. Babylon did fall in 539 B.C., but the exact historical records beyond that are less clear.

We do know that the carbon dioxide molecule has the inherent property of absorbing infrared radiation that would normally be emitted into space. We also know the largest contributor of carbon dioxide to our atmosphere — that is helping bring about climate change — is from the combustion of coal to produce energy. Because of this impact and its effect on human health and the environment, many governmental and regional entities are phasing out its use.

In the June 1 Press-Republican Climate Science column, we read that the province of Ontario would complete its phase-out of coal combustion by the end of 2014.

In mid-June 2014, GDF Suez Energy Generation North America announced the shutdown of the Mt. Tom power plant in Holyoke, Mass., by October 2014. As scheduled, earlier in June, the Salem Harbor Power Station closed, leaving only the Brayton Point power plant in Somerset, scheduled to close in 2017.

This signals the end of decades of burning coal for electrical power generation in Massachusetts.

Note the graph from the U.S. Energy Information Administration that shows the reduction in electrical energy generation by coal over the past six years in Massachusetts from 10,629 to 4,052 (thousand megawatt hours). The use of natural gas is one of several factors helping bring about this change.

Other changes are also happening. The Texas utility, El Paso Electric, with over 400,000 customers, announced in June that by 2016, its electricity mix will be free from coal. It has doubled its utility-scale solar portfolio in less than one year.

The company has entered into a long-term power purchasing agreement (PPA) with the very large Macho Springs solar plant in New Mexico (see photo of large-scale photo array). It will buy the solar power for 5.9 cents/kilowatt hour (kwh), which is less than half the 12.8 cents/kwh for electricity from new coal plants, according to Bloomberg.

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