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Gas rapidly replacing coal in electricity production

WHEELING, W.Va. — The amount of natural gas used to generate electricity increased more than three-fold in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana during the last nine years, while coal consumed for power in these states fell from 176 million tons in 2007 to only 100 tons in 2015.

In March, the U.S. Energy Information Administration predicted that collapsing prices associated with Marcellus and Utica shale production would result in 2016 being the first year for natural gas to generate more electricity than coal. On Thursday, the agency showed just how significantly coal demand has dropped over the past several years, as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proceeds with the Clean Power Plan.

“If you are talking about any new electric generation coming online, you are not likely to see coal-fired power plants. President Obama said it would bankrupt them if they build it,” Corky DeMarco, executive director of the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association, said.

According to the EIA, the amount of coal burned for electricity in Ohio fell by 49 percent from 2007 to 2015. Coal used used for electricity dropped by 44 percent in Pennsylvania during this time and 37 percent in Indiana.

Simultaneously, however, natural gas consumption at electric power plants in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana increased from 219 billion cubic feet in 2007 to 777 billion cubic feet last year.

American Electric Power turned out the lights on 5,535 megawatts of coal-fired power in Appalachia in June, including the former 630-megawatt Kammer Plant in Marshall County. Furthermore, AEP plans to transition its portion of the Cardinal Plant in Jefferson County to run on natural gas by no later than 2030, while some generators in Coshocton County will also end coal usage.

“Increased supply of natural gas and a resulting natural gas price decline spurred increases in natural gas-fired power generation in several states, generally at the expense of coal-fired generation,” the EIA stated.

The amount of coal burned in West Virginia from 2007 to 2015 declined by 26 percent, which is just under the national average downturn of 29 percent.

At the other end of the spectrum, California and New York trimmed their coal burning during that time by 96 and 89 percent, respectively.

DeMarco said natural gas producers are glad to have a new market for their fuel, but emphasized the industry is not seeking to eliminate coal power.

“The price of natural gas is so cheap that it is now economical for generating electricity. At today’s prices, we are competitive against coal. If it goes to $6, probably not,” he said.

According to the New York Mercantile Exchange, a 1,000 cubic-foot unit of natural gas sold for about $2.06 Thursday. This compares to a cost of about $4.50 per unit two years ago.

“That does not account for all the environmental issues that are working against coal,” DeMarco added.

Plans to build the $615 million natural gas fired Moundsville Power plant along the Ohio River remain in place, although DeMarco said he has not spoken with the developers for some time.

However, he acknowledged the EPA wants to cut methane emissions from the oil and natural gas industry 45 percent by 2025.

“At some point, they are probably going to try to shut down all fossil fuels,” DeMarco said.

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