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Gas-fired generation could see more battles under Bloomberg campaign

Washington — Proposals for new gas-fired generation are likely to face mounting opposition under Bloomberg Philanthropy's new Beyond Carbon campaign that aims not only to retire remaining US coal plants but also to "stop the rush" of new gas-fired units.

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Bloomberg last week announced plans to put $500 million toward moving the US economy to 100% clean energy by supporting state clean energy policies, backing the climate movement, electing state and local representatives, and moving beyond coal and gas.

Bloomberg officials declined to disclose a breakdown of how funds would be allocated, but said the cash infusion could come over the next several years, although that could be extended.

The focus on the gas side will be on fighting proposals for new gas-fired generation at public utility commissions and environmental agencies that issue permits, said Jeremiah Baumann, program lead for Beyond Carbon at Bloomberg Philanthropies, "especially in many places in the country where a combination of energy efficiency, wind, solar and storage can actually be more cost-effective and cheaper for ratepayers than a new gas plant."

The effort will include partnerships with national groups like the Sierra Club, Earthjustice and Natural Resource Defense Council, as well as with state and local groups and frontline communities, he said.

POWER MARKET RULES

There is also "a lot of policy advocacy waiting to happen" on wholesale power market rules in the regional transmission organizations and independent system operators, he said. "There are a lot places where rules were written in a way that advantages current incumbents," where renewables providers cannot bid into markets for certain services, or where auction structures give advantages to fossil energy, he said.

State regulation of methane emissions will be pushed as will efforts by cities and states to transition to electric heating and cooling, instead of gas, Baumann said.

While the campaign is not ruling out targeting pipelines, Baumann said it would likely prioritize those "where the most carbon pollution is at stake, and where there's a cleaner alternative that fits that area's needs."

Coordinated opposition to gas pipelines, particularly in the Eastern US in the last several years, has created friction for projects, for instance slowing two large targets, the 2 Bcf/d Mountain Valley Pipeline and the 1.5 Bcf/d Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

"We've seen that the pipeline fights have galvanized public engagement and have built public awareness and really vibrant opposition to gas," said Kelly Martin, director of Sierra Club's Beyond Dirty Fuels. The increased capacity from the Beyond Carbon campaign "will enable us to continue to mobilize alongside folks who are opposing fracked gas on all parts of the cycle, from fracking fields, to pipelines to power plants," she said. She expected more fights in more locations around the country.

COST FACTORS

One industry observer said he expected "economics will still largely rule" in determining the fuel mix, while lobbying efforts can make a difference at the margins.

Kevin Book of ClearView Energy Partners said the immense scale of the Bloomberg efforts suggests "a lot of potential to influence hearts and minds," but that fully replacing about 25% of power generation without building new gas-fired plants "looks to be a tall order on several levels, especially within the space of 11 short years."

Because shutdowns to date have been of less efficient economic performers, "thinning of the herd leaves a stronger herd," he said.

While switching from coal to renewables could theoretically effect deeper emissions cuts than a switch to gas -- 1.15 billion mt CO2/year versus about 700 million mt CO2/year -- "the combination of a higher hardware cost than gas and a lower capacity factor than gas means more up-front spending," he said. By his back-of-the-envelope calculation, switching remaining coal to gas could achieve 61% of the GHG reductions of a 100% renewables substitution at about 38% of the up-front cost.

Matt Letourneau of the US Chamber of Commerce Global Energy Institute said "the industry is already adjusting to the fact that there is going to be a lot of opposition to fossil fuel infrastructure."

"We're a long way away, just from a technical feasibility standpoint, from being beyond gas," he added. The group's utility members are making investments that lower emissions "at the pace that the technology allows," he said.

Addressing questions about feasibility of relying entirely on energy storage, as opposed to gas, to balance renewables, Baumann counters that "there's still plenty of fossil on the system" and "you have to get to a very high level of renewables before you have to be concerned about intermittency."

Chris Hamilton, chairman of the West Virginia Business and Industry Council, called the plan an "outrage" and hoped to pool resources with other similar groups and national pro-business groups to mount an opposition. "We hope to develop a multistate coalition of elected officials, hopefully a bipartisan coalition to push back against the Bloomberg plan," Hamilton said.

-- Maya Weber, maya.weber@spglobal.com

-- Jim Magill, jim.magill@spglobal.com

-- Edited by Rocco Canonica, newsdesk@spglobal.com