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US power burns at record highs

Coal-fired, nuclear generation continues to face challenges

Northeast US renewables targets could hit delays

New York — State and federal policy aimed at mitigating climate change impacts along with economic shifts are set to dramatically impact US power markets over the next decade, as more coal and nuclear capacity is retired, while renewable energy capacity grows, S&P Global Platts Analytics said Sept. 2.

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"With power, gas burns are particularly important to our long-term gas price and balance forecasts," Rich Redash, head of global gas planning at Platts Analytics, said during a web presentation on the group's long-term forecasts of North America's power markets and their role in the energy transition.

In the US, we've watched gas burns increase from 18 Bcf/day back in 2008 to 32 Bcf/day in 2020, which is another new record high and a 14 Bcf/day cumulative expansion over the past 10 years, Redash said.

That growth has dwarfed the gain in industrial demand and demand from LNG plants which reached about 6 Bcf/day in 2019 before getting some coronavirus pandemic-related hiccups, he added.

The lower 48 states were experiencing fairly weak weather-adjusted power load growth over the past decade due to growth in energy efficiency and behind-the-meter solar, but the pandemic this year led to "a severe dip" in demand that bottomed out in the April to May timeframe and has since bounced back a bit, Manan Ahuja, senior director of electric power analytics at Platts Analytics, said.

US power demand was down nearly 6% during that time and declined by an average 2.3% from Jan. to July, according to the analysts.

Another key input for the long-term power outlook is natural gas prices, which Platts Analytics expects to increase a bit from current levels around $2.50/MMBtu for benchmark Henry Hub, but not breaking above $3.50/MMBtu any time before 2040.

Additionally, coal-fired and nuclear power generation are expected to continue facing economic pressure due to historically depressed gas prices which lead to reductions in coal and nuclear generation capacity, Ahuja said.

"Also, age is not on the side of these plants either, as no new coal or nuclear power is really getting built," he said, so age, economics and aversion to coal and nuclear power in some places create challenges for these forms of power generation.

Lower loads, declining costs for renewable energy and storage, along with state policy targets limit fossil-fired generation over the longer term, according to the presentation.

Northeast market dynamics

Over the next five to 10 years in the northeast, energy efficiency and BTM solar outpaces underlying growth in power demand which leads to lower power generation totals, but in the 2030 to 2040 time period there is more load growth expected to be met with renewables as targeted by state policy, Kieran Kemmerer, power market analyst with Platts Analytics, said.

"That 2030 to 2040 period is a little more challenging because we are trying to meet increasing load with a higher percentage of renewables," Kemmerer said.

In New York and ISO-New England a lot of the load growth is coming from electric vehicle charging, but the forecast also accounts for expected increases due to electrification of heating demand, he said.

New York currently has roughly half an average gigawatt of wind power generation and about 100 average megawatts of solar generation, with similar levels in ISO-NE, that increase in both markets to about 4 aGW of generation by 2040, Kemmerer said.

One key to meeting some aggressive state renewable energy targets in New York, ISO-NE and PJM Interconnection is the ability of offshore wind capacity to come online in time to hit the targeted thresholds, he said.

New York has mandated having 9 GW of offshore wind capacity by 2035, but supply chain bottlenecks and permitting challenges could inhibit reaching that goal on time.

Policymaker expectations are "relatively aggressive" by 2030, with over 4 GW of installed offshore wind capacity in ISO-NE and near 6 GW in New York by that time "and we just don't expect to get there," Kemmerer said.

However, over the longer term those goals could be met assuming the necessary infrastructure gets built, he said.