Denver — As natural gas usurped coal as the king of US power generation, so the renewables sector is looking to eat into gas' market share, especially in the Western US, as multiple states and cities in the Rockies and Pacific regions pass measures to not only replace gas-fired output with renewables, but also limit future growth in residential and commercial demand as well.
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In May, Colorado Governor Jared Polis, a Democrat, signed a bill directing all utilities to achieve an 80% carbon reduction by 2030 and move to 100% carbon-free electricity generation by 2050. In the fall of 2018, California passed a law requiring 100% renewable power sourcing by 2045.
However, if gas prices remain low, power burn looks set to remain part of the grid for a longer period of time.
"From the electricity side, we are excited about low natural gas prices," Polis told The Energy Summit conference in late August. "That is good news for natural gas to remain part of the grid, but it's bad news for producers. A lot of the future of the grid depends on commodities prices. If the low prices remain for natural gas, if this is the new normal, it will remain part of the grid longer."
Not only states and municipalities are pushing for more renewable generation. Xcel Energy, which operates in eight states across the Upper Midwest, Rockies and Southwest regions, is aiming for 100% carbon-free generation by 2050.
"The average price of our wind generation is about the same as natural gas, but solar generation comes in cheaper," Xcel CEO Alice Jackson told the same conference. "It is economical for us to replace natural-gas fired power with solar on our system. These are prices locked in with long-term contracts. They don't go up and down with inflation. We know solar power is cheaper than both our coal and natural gas-fired generation."
A study released Monday by the Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit research group focused on a low carbon future, echoed Jackson's comments. It said an estimated $90 billion was currently being invested in new US gas-fired plant along with another $30 billion for gas pipelines. It found $29 billion in savings if such investments were redirected to renewable energy sources instead.
The cost trends could lead to the economic retirement of plants representing 90% of currently proposed new gas-fired capacity by 2035, resulting in a risk of stranded investment capital, according to the report. Just as coal plants have retired due to competition from low-priced gas over the past decade, the ongoing cost declines in wind, solar and battery technologies might do the same to gas plants by the mid-2030s.
A decline in US gas-fired generation would lead gas producers to find other markets for their molecules.
"(Xcel) can do whatever they want," David Keyte, CEO of Caerus Oil and Gas, said when speaking at The Energy Summit. "They are a customer now, but if they choose not to be in the future, so be it ... We'll turn to other markets. If we're being told electrical generation is leaving us behind. We take it, shift into other markets and commit our product to those markets."
"A lot of this is politically driven," he added. "Wind is not carbon-free, solar is not carbon-free, at least on the supply side ... When I think about this whole substitution being talked about, let's be rational and real and look at the entire impact."
CALIFORNIA CITIES TO CUT RESIDENTIAL, COMMERCIAL DEMAND
The effort to crack down on gas is not limited to power generation.
In July, the city council of Berkeley, California, passed a law banning the connection of gas lines to most types of new buildings, including industrial, commercial and residential. The city council of Menlo Park, California, plans to pass a similar measure on Tuesday. The laws will go into effect in January 2020. There are dozens of other city councils across the state pondering their own bans.
In Washington state, Seattle's city council plans to create a similar ban, one that would start July 2020.
Residential and commercial demand in the Pacific Northwest has averaged 1.36 Bcf/d so far this summer, according to S&P Global Platts Analytics, up from 1.29 Bcf/d in the same period a year ago.
So far in 2019, gas-fired power generation has averaged 159,760 GWh/d in California, according to Platts Analytics, compared with 166,716 GWh/d in the year-ago period.
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