Would Scrapping U.S. Subsidies for Renewable Energy Revive Coal?

Tim Loh

If federal subsidies for renewables get phased out, will U.S. coal stage a comeback? In other words, will wind and solar get crowded out?

That was the question posed by one industry veteran at the Platts Coal Marketing Days conference in Pittsburgh on Tuesday and here’s how a panel of experts responded:

Eric Murray, who manages coal supply for the Tennessee Valley Authority, pointed out that much of the pressure to prioritize renewables is actually coming from large corporations. These are major customers for the TVA, he said, and they often require that they get 100 percent of their power from renewables before agreeing to open facilities in the region. “That’s where I think you’ll have to see some sort of paradigm shift,” Murray said.

Peter Balash, a Department of Energy economist, said that one thing hobbling the industry’s prospects is the nation’s aging fleet of coal-fired power plants. When the Energy Department simulates future power mixes, he said, it often projects most of the coal-fired plants will only be reliable for another 10 or 15 years. “That gives the industry and its stakeholders about that long to come up with coal plant designs that can work,” he said.

Thomas Coleman, a director at the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, noted that one big headache for coal — the Obama-era Clean Power Plan — has been stopped. But the more immediate problem, he said, is that there are more than 20 states with renewable portfolio standards — and those standards keep getting more stringent.

Karen Obenshain, a director at the Edison Electric Institute, pretty much agreed with her fellow panelists. “It’s state policies that are pushing the climate issue now since there’s a void at the federal level,” she said. “Yes, our big industrial folks, they do want 100 percent renewables.”

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