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Despite Successful Building of Clean Energy, Simultaneous New Fossil Fuel Generation Undercutting those Goals

ZME Science

The energy and utility industries have been rightfully focused in recent years on building out their fleet of clean power generators. From new utility-scale solar and wind facilities to extending existing nuclear power plants to even more modern solutions like distributed energy resources, energy storage, and demand response models, the goal has been to create as many sources as possible of clean power generation so we can create a power grid that's lower carbon and eventually carbon neutral.

As much success has been made in that regard, which is the topic on which many posts on this community of Energy Central focus, a concerning trend for clean power advocates to watch is the corresponding moves of the fossil fuel industry. While an ideal world would see clean power directly replacing fossil fuel, the reality is much more complicated. Power needs grow and need additional generation, intermittent nature of many clean power sources mean a one-for-one replacement is often not possible, and the economics of building out some fossil fuel generation have not phased out investors quite yet.

So as the clean power transition attempts to take hold, it's important to also note where those efforts might be getting undercut by new infrastructure that will be long-standing sources of carbon-intensive energy generation and behaviors:

  • The executive director of the International Energy Agency recently noted that the surge in U.S. and Canadian oil production over the past year is pushing the planet's climate goals out of reach, suggesting that the number of production surge from North America has been the equivalent to adding "one Russia or one Saudi Arabia" to the global oil markets, with natural gas production telling a "similar story." 
  • Despite famous efforts and coordination with Elon Musk to build out energy storage and other clean tech technologies, the coal industry is still seeing some new builds in Australia in contrast to much of the rest of the world where investors are not putting up any new coal generation. As one example, a deal has been signed to develop two massive new coal power plants in the New South Wales Hunter Region totaling about 2,000 MW of coal power. 
  • While other nations (namely China and the United States) remain the largest global producers of coal to feed coal power plants, recent study finds that low-quality coal is specifically being burned in Eastern Europe, Russia, and India where older power plants have less sophisticated equipment and end up releasing more pollutants per unit of energy created. 
  • Additionally, the liquefied natural gas (LNG) market has been exploding-- with the United States and Canada building out export terminals and countries in Asia building out import infrastructure, such as in China and Vietnam

How do these type of new builds in the fossil fuel generation industry affect the clean power industry? Does it affect their viability or competitiveness? How damaging are the fossil fuel trends to the long-term clean power goals?

Matt Chester's picture

Thank Matt for the Post!

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on March 21, 2019

"Natural" gas - bridge fuel on a bridge that never ends.

"Increased use of natural gas has been promoted as a means of decarbonizing the US power sector, because of superior generator efficiency and lower CO2 emissions per unit of electricity than coal...Across a range of climate policies, we find that abundant natural gas decreases use of both coal and renewable energy technologies in the future. Without a climate policy, overall electricity use also increases as the gas supply increases. With reduced deployment of lower-carbon renewable energies and increased electricity consumption, the effect of higher gas supplies on GHG emissions is small: cumulative emissions 2013–55 in our high gas supply scenario are 2% less than in our low gas supply scenario, when there are no new climate policies and a methane leakage rate of 1.5% is assumed. Assuming leakage rates of 0 or 3% does not substantially alter this finding. In our results, only climate policies bring about a significant reduction in future CO2 emissions within the US electricity sector. Our results suggest that without strong limits on GHG emissions or policies that explicitly encourage renewable electricity, abundant natural gas may actually slow the process of decarbonization, primarily by delaying deployment of renewable energy technologies."

The effect of natural gas supply on US renewable energy and CO2 emissions

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on March 22, 2019

And in case anyone listening to the presentation broadcast, CEO Rick Francis made it clear: “This (clean energy transition) is happening now, irrespective of the policy uncertainty.”

Which is to say that the conservative media and the Coalition government can shout all they want, but they can’t prevent what is inevitable – the exit of ageing, highly polluting coal generators and their replacement with the cheapest option – a mix of renewables and storage.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on March 23, 2019

"AEMO operates on a cost recovery basis and recover our operating costs through fees paid by market participants. Our members are made up of Australian governments (60%) and industry participants (40%)."

Joe, of course AEMO promotes gas - the corporation CEO Rick Francis operates is "responsible for operating Australia’s largest gas and electricity markets and power systems", and it's quite possible 40% of his salary comes from fossil fuel gas interests. Of course, it will also promote solar, wind, storage, liquids, biomass, cosmic rays, pyramids, and other sources which have not a chance of challenging fossil fuel domination of the Australian grid.

Yesterday at Haas Energy Institute in Berkeley, I heard a woman from Melbourne describe how utility deregulation has made a mess of electricity in Australia - prices are going through the roof, and the only way for consumers to determine value from different providers is how hard it is to negotiate with them. I don't think that's a particularly valid criterion with which customers should have to concern themselves, but maybe it's part of the renewable dream.


Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on March 23, 2019

Joe, of course AEMO promotes gas - the corporation CEO Rick Francis operates is "responsible for operating Australia’s largest gas and electricity markets and power systems", and it's quite possible 40% of his salary comes from fossil fuel gas interests.


Promotes gas?? you mean that tiny blue sliver?  I can hardly see it. I need some new glasses. The corrupt CEO you mention is not doing a very good job. Sounds like the fossil fuel interests may need to get another guy in there.

Good to see that your conspiracy theories apply to Australia as well.

Meanwhile, plenty of solar coming online over the next few years to replace coal generation.

900 MW solar farm approved for Australia’s Riverina region

It also followed a number of other big PV approvals granted in late December, including: a massive solar+storage project at Darlington Point – a 275 MW solar farm coupled with 100 MWh energy storage facility, the 140 MW Mulwala Solar Farm, the 170 MW Suntop Solar Farm and the 47 MW Gregadoo Solar Farm, rounding off another big solar year for NSW.

According to the government data, six solar farms were commissioned in 2018 alone, representing 305 MW and $475 million in investment, placing the total operating large-scale solar capacity in NSW at around 500 MW coming from nine projects.

Another seven solar farms were under construction representing 530 MW and around $720 million in investment, while there were almost 70 more solar farms with, or seeking, planning approval in NSW, with capacity to generate more than 10,000 MW.

How much new nuclear will we have coming online in Australia to help lower the CO2 from Australian coal plants over the next decade? ZERO.

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