Coal’s Cruel Fortune: Its Biggest Market Is Also the Windiest
Here’s how bad U.S. coal has it these days: The region that has for years burned the most coal also happens to be the windiest.
The Great Plains states that run south from Canada to Texas, tucked between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River, are increasingly turning to cheap wind power to generate electricity. It’s a shift that’s eating into coal’s dwindling share of America’s power plant pie.
In Texas, which burns more coal than any other state, wind generation has grown almost 10-fold since 2005. That’s come as coal use there slid in April to the lowest in 14 years. Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri and the Dakotas have all seen a similar or starker re-balancing in a region known for its broad, flat terrain. The changes are part of a larger-scale war being waged worldwide between coal, natural gas and renewables including wind.
“It’s a three-way cage fight,” said Michael Webber, deputy director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin.
In 2005, the U.S. had about 9,000 megawatts of wind capacity. That’s grown to 69,471 megawatts, and more than 13,250 are under construction, according to data from the American Wind Energy Association.
The rapid emergence of wind is hurting coal in two ways. On breezy days, the fossil fuel must compete head-to-head against turbines powered by free wind. When the wind fluctuates, natural gas-fired plants that can start up quicker than coal-burning units are often called in to make up for the lost power.
Of course, wind is intermittent. Sometimes it blows and sometimes it doesn’t. If all the country’s turbines were to turn at normal rates, wind power could displace 96.5 million tons of coal, or one-eighth of this year’s projected consumption, according to an analysis by Grand Junction, Colorado-based Doyle Trading Consultants.
Turbines are ideal for the Great Plains because wind whips over the Rocky Mountains and along the elevated, flat terrain. It’s akin to the wind caught between skyscrapers in metropolitan areas, said Wade Schauer, principal analyst for North America power research at Wood Mackenzie, an Edinburgh, U.K.-based energy consultancy.