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Youth TourNRECA


Co-ops plan for the rise of natural gas as a fuel for electricity By Paul Wesslund


One of the major changes going on in the U.S. electric utility industry today is that coal, which was once the domi- nant fuel source for generating electricity, is increasingly be- ing replaced by natural gas. Electric co-ops are watching to make sure that new generating resource mix doesn't hurt the reliability and affordability of electricity. “We’re not going to com- pletely turn away from one fuel and focus on another,” says Mike Casper, Senior Manager, Generation and Fuels for the National Rural Electric Coop- erative Association. “We need a diverse portfolio of fuels to maintain reliable and affordable electricity.”


The attention to this issue by electric co-op leaders results from a recent trend in which coal, which generated 52 per- cent of the nation’s electricity as recently as 15 years ago, is being replaced relatively quickly by natural gas. By May of 2015, coal’s share had fallen to 33 percent of U.S. electricity out- put. Natural gas, meanwhile, rose from a 16 percent share in 2000, nearly doubling to 31 percent by last May.


That changing generation trend results primarily from the steep drop in natural gas prices in the last several years. But it is also partly due to the greater operating flexibility of smaller


and less expensive natural gas plants compared with coal-fired plants. Environmental regula- tions also increas- ingly favor natural gas because of that fuel’s lower car- bon emis- sions rates. There


are ben- efits to a diverse fuel mix. Coal- fired power plants


have long provided reliable, low-cost electricity. Natural gas prices have traditionally been very volatile over the last few decades.


Also, increased use of natural gas could require significant expansion of the natural gas pipeline system. NRECA policy resolutions call for a diversity of fuels for generating electricity, support- ing “the use of domestic coal, oil and gas resources, nuclear energy, renewables, as well as


Paul Wesslund writes on cooperative issues for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the Arling- ton, Va.-based service arm of the nation’s 900-plus consumer-owned, not-for-profit electric cooperatives.


conservation, energy efficiency, and demand management.”


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