Less coal use curbs emissions

Carbon levels hit low point in 2015

As disputes continue globally over how to curb greenhouse-gas emissions and produce energy economically, the use of carbon-dioxide-emitting coal in the United States -- including in Arkansas -- has dropped significantly in recent years.

Coal use in Arkansas in 2015 was so low that the related carbon-dioxide emissions dipped below the threshold the state would be required to meet under the final year of the federal Clean Power Plan.

That is in contrast with increases in carbon-dioxide emissions as recently as 2012. The state experienced a 35 percent increase in emissions from 2005 until 2012 and opened a fourth coal plant in December of 2012.

The state's carbon emissions were 30.1 million tons in 2015, down from 39.7 million tons in 2014, according to an analysis by the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality. In 2030, the state would be required to reduce emissions to 30.6 million tons from existing plants affected by the Clean Power Plan and new sources.

The Clean Power Plan is on hold pending a decision on the plan's merits by an appeals court in Washington, D.C. In February, after an appeal of a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit not to issue a stay on the Clean Power Plan, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay that halted enforcement of the plan.

Arkansas is a party in the lawsuit over the plan, with Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge and the Environmental Quality Department maintaining that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency didn't have the legal authority to issue the plan. Despite the stay, the EPA has decided to implement the related Clean Energy Incentives Program for states to use on renewable-energy projects.

But even without the plan, which seeks to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions from power plants built or under construction before Jan. 9, 2014, emissions from electricity generation in 2015 were 21 percent below 2005 levels nationally and have been below the 2005 levels each year since 2007, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That's 1.9 billion tons of carbon-dioxide emissions in 2015, down from just under 2.5 billion tons. Such emissions, since 1993, were at their lowest point in 2015 .

The retirement of coal plants nationwide, federal regulations on coal plants, the introduction of more zero-emissions renewable energy and low prices for lower-emitting natural gas are contributing factors to the downward trend of coal use.

In Arkansas, where the carbon-emitting John W. Turk coal plant went online in 2012, going against the trend, the most common reason cited by utility officials for the decline in coal use is low natural-gas prices.

From 2014 to 2015, natural-gas prices dropped 40 percent, based on an average of the monthly settlement prices for natural gas on the New York Mercantile Exchange, Entergy Arkansas spokesman Sally Graham said. In 2015, the price per 1 million British thermal unit was $2.70; in 2014, it was $4.40.

The price of coal is a little more than $2 per 1 million Btu.

"It's economical to dispatch natural-gas production," said Stuart Spencer, director of the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality's air division. In addition, he said, more renewable-energy projects at utilities is making coal less a part of the big picture.

"When all those factors are added together seeing this reduction in carbon emissions, I can't say that it will stick, but that's what you're seeing now."

Going forward, federal regulations could further move Arkansas' electricity sector away from coal. Entergy Arkansas already has proposed shutting down the 1,700-megawatt White Bluff coal plant near Redfield in response to the 1999 Regional Haze Rule passed by Congress and which has yet to be implemented in Arkansas. The EPA must issue an implementation plan for it by Aug. 31, according to a court order.

The proposed shutdown, by 2028, is to avoid what the utility estimates to be $1 billion in compliance costs for the plant, which will reach the end of its life in the early 2030s.

The Sierra Club environmental group supports the closure of White Bluff and the equally large Independence plant near Newport. Those plants comprise the majority of coal production in Arkansas, with the Flint Creek and Turk plants making up only 1,123 megawatts combined.

The Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, which routinely points out coal's effects on the climate and the high cost of coal plants as federal regulations become more stringent, notes on its website that 233 coal plants have been retired during its campaign, leaving 290 in the nation.

The group expects the improved reliability and lower cost of renewable energy to continue and notes the changes that can been seen in the use of those technologies, including in Arkansas.

"In the last year, there have been five separate renewable-energy projects announced in Arkansas where we didn't have any before," said Glen Hooks, president of the group's Arkansas chapter.

"There's just a lot of things that are pointing us in the direction of moving away from coal," Hooks added.

Measuring the effect of the changing electricity sector on consumers' pocketbooks is difficult.

Arkansas Public Service Commission Executive Director John Bethel said the commission doesn't track average electricity prices for homeowners, for example. He said recent price increases can be the result of several developments: the purchase of new power or power plants; retrofitting for federal regulation compliance; the construction of transmission lines; the construction of distribution facilities; repairs for facilities; salary and benefit increases; and the higher price of fuel.

When coal is burned, it produces carbon dioxide that is mitigated at varying levels at electricity-generating plants across the country. Carbon dioxide is a major contributor to climate change. The EPA estimates that fossil fuel-fired power plants comprise 31 percent of all greenhouse-gas emissions in the country.

After using the 1,700-megawatt White Bluff and 1,700-megawatt Independence coal plants at a capacity factor of about 70 percent to 80 percent for the past 20 years, Entergy Arkansas ran the White Bluff plant at 43.4 percent and Independence at 35.21 percent in 2015. Capacity factor refers to how often a plant or technology is used at peak capacity.

In 2015, capacity factor nationally for coal was 54.6 percent, down from 61 percent in 2014. For combined-cycle natural gas it was 56.3 percent. For photovoltaic solar panels, capacity factor was was 28.6 percent, 32.5 percent for wind and 35.9 percent for hydropower. Nuclear power, which provides most of Entergy Arkansas' electricity, had a national capacity factor of 92.2 percent in 2015.

Graham, the Entergy spokesman, attributed the drop in coal use for Entergy Arkansas to the decrease in natural-gas prices.

"As a result of these low gas prices, in 2015 and so far in 2016, Entergy Arkansas, Inc. significantly reduced its production of electricity at White Bluff and Independence because it can save customers money by producing electricity at its gas-fired plants," Graham said in a statement to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Natural gas-fired electricity generation exceeded coal generation nationally for most months of 2015, according to Energy Information Administration data. The agency expects natural gas to make up a greater share of electricity generation than coal for 2016, 33 percent to 32 percent.

While the price of natural gas could increase and lead to a reversal of the carbon-emissions reduction seen last year, electric utilities that operate in Arkansas intend to use more zero-emissions renewable energy in the coming years.

In an August report, Entergy Arkansas told the state Public Service Commission that it plans to increase its output by 2,000 to 6,000 megawatts in the next 20 years, all of which it expects to reach by using natural gas, solar and wind power.

Entergy Arkansas has announced plans for a solar farm in Stuttgart to open toward the end of the decade. The company will purchase 20 years worth of solar power from the 81-megawatt NextEra energy Resources solar park. The company also has invested in a 495-megawatt share of a natural-gas facility in El Dorado.

Arkansas Electric Cooperatives Corp., which has a minority share of four coal plants in Arkansas, announced last year an agreement with Aerojet Rocketdyne of Sacramento, Calif., to buy electricity at the newly opened 12-megawatt solar park at the East Camden Highland Industrial Park. Rick Running, manager of generation planning for the utility, said it already has two wind plants operating and that it would purchase two more later this year and in 2017.

The Flint Creek coal plant in Gentry, owned by Southwestern Electrice Power Co. and Arkansas Electric Cooperatives, was put on economic reserve for the first time in 38 years last year, said Curtis Warner, director of compliance and support at Arkansas Electric Cooperatives.

Clean Line Energy Partners, a Houston company, intends to reserve 500 megawatts of wind power for Arkansas via a transmission line it wants to build through Arkansas and other states for a 4,000-megawatt wind project.

SWEPCO, which owns and operates two coal plants in Arkansas and opened the Turk plant in December 2012, plans to increase its renewable-energy reliance to 29 percent from 7 percent of its electricity-generating portfolio by 2034, said Peter Main, a SWEPCO spokesman. Coal's share of the portfolio would drop to 35 percent from 46 percent and natural gas would drop to 32 percent from 37 percent. Those figures apply to the whole company and not just its Arkansas operations.

As for 2015, Main said the company's coal plants in Arkansas weren't dispatched as much by regional transmission operator Southwest Power Pool that year compared with 2014.

"Last year, lower natural-gas prices and mild weather were the primary factors for less generation from SWEPCO's Arkansas units," he said.

"That's a one-year look," he added. "I think it's important to note that higher load on the systems and increase in natural-gas prices would cause it to go back up."

Metro on 05/16/2016

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