DURHAM, N.C. -- The cost of complying with tougher EPA air-quality standards could spur an increased shift away from coal and toward natural gas for electricity generation, according to a new Duke University study.
The stricter regulations on sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, nitrogen oxide and mercury may make nearly two-thirds of the nation's coal-fired power plants as expensive to run as plants powered by natural gas, the study finds.
"Because of the cost of upgrading plants to meet the EPA's pending emissions regulations and its stricter enforcement of current regulations, natural gas plants would become cost-competitive with a majority of coal plants -- even if natural gas becomes more than four times as expensive as coal," said Lincoln F. Pratson, a professor of earth and ocean sciences at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment.
"This is a much higher fraction of economic vulnerability than has previously been reported," said Pratson, an expert on carbon capture and storage, energy resources and energy systems.
To conduct the study, he and his team assessed the cost of electricity generation at plants producing 95 percent of the nation's coal-fired electricity and 70 percent of its natural gas-powered electricity. The researchers estimated costs for both types of plants over a wide range of fuel prices and under both existing and pending emissions standards.
Under current standards and at current fuel prices, 9 percent of U.S. coal-fired plants are more costly to run than a median-cost natural gas plant, they found. Even a modest jump in gas prices could erase this advantage. "If the ratio of natural gas-to-coal prices rises to 1.8 from its recent level of around 1.5, coal plants would again become the dominant least-cost generation option," Pratson said.
However, with tougher emissions standards the EPA would enact and enforce, another 56 percent of U.S. coal plants would become as costly t
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