Phasing Out the Use of Fossil Fuels for the Generation of Electricity

AuthorSteven Weissman and Réna Kakon
Page 619
I. Introduction
Carbon-free electricity is a central element of any efort
to achieve deep reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG)
emissions. is would be true if our use of electricity
were never to change, but it is even more clearly the case
when the overall strategy relies on electrifying most cu r-
rent uses of fossil fuel. e Deep Decarboniz ation Path-
ways Project (DDPP) policy report for the United States
calls for “[n]early complete decarbonization of electricity, and
reduced carbon in other kinds of fuels. e c arbon intensity
of electricity must be reduced by at least 97%, from more
than 500 [gra ms of carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour]
g CO2/kWh today to 15 g CO2/kWh or less in 2050.”1
1. James H. Williams et al., Pathways to Deep Decarbonization in the
United States, U.S. 2050 Report, Volume 2: Policy Implica 
D D   U S 10 (Deep Decarbonization
Pathways Project & Energy and Environmental Economics, Inc., 2015), avail-
Unless there is revolutionary growth in the deployment of
technologies for carbon capture and sequestration (CCS)
(discussed in Chapter 28) or direct air capture (Chapter
29), we must eliminate virtually al l use of fossil fuels to
generate electricity. In the absence of major technological
and economic breakthroughs, sequest ration and direct air
capture are not likely to enable the continued use of a sig-
nicant quantity of fossil fuel.
e DDPP talks about strategies for stimulating t he
right kinds of new development, and recognizes t he impor-
tance of timely retirement and replacement of existing fos-
sil fuel “infra structure and equipment with ecient and
low-carbon successors.”2 e DDPP does not, however,
identify the legal and policy measures needed to speci-
cally phase out, and ultimately eliminate, the use of fossil
able at
pdf [hereinafter DDPP P R].
2. Id. at 54 g. 26.
Chapter 24
Phasing Out the Use of Fossil Fuels for
the Generation of Electricity
by Steven Weissman and Réna Kakon
(with appendices by Stephen Herzenberg and Michael B. Gerrard)
In order to achieve a low-carbon world, it is essential to make the use of energy far more ecient and to intro-
duce a very signicant amount of renewable or otherwise carbon-free generation. Yet, these steps alone will not
decarbonize electricity. Each scenario in the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project reports envisions dramatic
reductions in the use of fossil fuels to generate electricity. Fossil-red generation, utilizing coal and natural gas,
provides a lion’s share of the gigawatt hours serving end-use customers, and shows no sign of abating. History
does not support the assumption that cleaner technologies will push out the dirtier ones. What are needed are
armative actions designed to phase out the use of fossil fuels to generate electricity. Armative steps come in
various forms. ey start with planning—recognizing current patterns of fossil fuel use and charting a dierent
course. Action can include some combination of specic state and federal prohibitions on the use of fossil fuels
by all electric service providers; limits on greenhouse gas emissions; closure or divestment of government-owned
fossil-fueled generators; and the implementation of policies that have a direct or indirect eect on the cost of
power from carbon-emitting sources. is chapter expands on the nature of the challenge and describes the
range of solutions in greater detail. e chapter has two appendices. e rst, written by Stephen Herzenberg,
recommends social policies to accelerate a fossil fuel phaseout. e second, written by Michael B. Gerrard, rec-
ommends ways of addressing stranded assets.
Page 620 Legal Pathways to Deep Decarbonization in the United States
fuels for power production; that is outside the scope of its
work. Policymakers tend not to face head-on the need for
such measures. Instead, t hey seem to embrace a quiet hope
that greater energy eciency and the ac celerated develop-
ment of renewable generation will push coal and natural
gas out of the way. However, the history of energy use in
the United States does not support the assumption that
events would unfold in this way.
e United States has undergone several energy transi-
tions, well-documented in Figure 1, produced by the U.S.
Energy Information Administration (EIA).
What began as almost exclusive reliance on wood for
energy yielded to the dominance of coal in the late 1800s.
By the 1950s, petroleum was king, shadowed by its often
co-produced sibling, natural ga s. Building slowly in the
1960s and hitting a modest crescendo in the 1980s, nuclear
power came into the picture, although it has not atta ined a
position of dominance as a fuel choice.
As the nation moved through the era of wood, to the
era of coal followed by oil and gas, a distu rbing pattern
emerged. Although dierent fuels c ame to dominate the
scene, none of the other fuels ever went away. In fact, the
United States has used as much wood for fuel in recent
years as it did during the Civi l War. And even after oil and
gas came to dominate, the use of coa l continued to grow.3
As Kevin Bullis states, “When oil is introduced, it seems
to displace coal, but coal use quick ly recovers. A similar
drop occurs when natural-gas consumption starts to rise.
But within a couple of decades coal use is growing again.”4
With the recession in 2008 and the availability of plenti-
ful, cheap natural gas, the use of coal for domestic energy
3. Kevin Bullis, How Energy Consumption Has Changed Since 1776, MIT
T. R., July 3, 2013,
4. Id.
reversed direction and returned to the lev-
els of consumption experienced in 1985.
Does that mean that the use of coal
in the United States is about to end? Not
according to the EIA, which still shows
21.5% of the nation’s electricity coming
from coal in 2040.5 While we have seen
a surge of coal plant retirements in the
past few years, they have mostly involved
smaller generating facilities. A lmost half of
the coal generators of a decade ago have
shut down, but reductions in summer
generating capacity are far less dramatic.
In fact, from 2006 to 2011, capacity
increased from 313 gigawatts (GW) to 317
GW. With 25 GW of capacity scheduled
to retire from 2012 to 2015, almost 80% of
the coal-red generating capacity in exis-
tence in 2006 still remained available as of 2016.6
In that same time period, overall c oal plant annual
output has been reduced from 1,990 GW hours (GWh)
to 1,356 GWh. e common understanding is that this
reduction has been driven by the low cost of natural ga s.
With most of the generating capacity still available, what
happens when the cost of natural ga s rises dramatically, as
history suggests it wi ll?
Many refer to natural gas as a bridge fuel for power
plants, intended to help cut GHG emissions as compared
to the use of coal while we strive to bring down the cost of
renewable power and speed its introduction. But how long
is the bridge, and how do we get o of the bridge when
we reach the other side? And what of the concerns, voiced
by some, that natural gas a s we use it may provide little or
no reduction of GHG emissions when compared to con-
ventional coal use? While more and more people ask these
questions, reassuring answers are hard to nd.
e nation’s history with natural gas use has b een one of
considerable growth. In 2014, businesses and individuals
in the United States used ve times the amount of natura l
gas used 65 years earlier (see Figure 2).7
On average, natural gas consumption grew 2.78% for
each year between 1949 and 2014, despite the fact that
5. EIA, A E O 2018: W P  2050, at 90
(2018) [hereinafter AEO 2018] (electricity generation by fuel in the reference
case 2000-2040, given as 1,200 billion kWh of coal), available at https://
6. Statistics for 2011 and beyond derived from EIA, 27 Gigawatts of Coal-Fired
Capacity to Retire Over Next Five Years, T  E, July 27, 2012,; generation data from
EIA, Table 1.1 Net Generation by Energy Source: Total (All Sectors), 2008-Janu-
ary 2018,
cfm?t=epmt_1_1 (last released Mar. 23, 2018); capacity statistics (2006)
7. EIA, A E O 2015: W P  2040 (2015)
(DOE/EIA-0383(2015)) [hereinafter AEO 2015], available at https://www.
Figure 1
History of Energy Consumption in the United States
Source: EIA (2017), https://w =31892.
Energy co nsumption in the Un ited States (1776-2016)
quadrillion British thermal units
1776 1850 1900 1950 2016
natural gas
other renewables

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