While some news reports tout new renewable energy sources as replacements for traditional sources like coal and oil, the truth is that an evolving mix of old and new sources powers the United States. For example, the role of natural gas in New England’s electricity generation has grown faster than renewables as available gas resources increase.
With the closures of Vermont Yankee nuclear plant and the Salem Harbor coal- and oil-fired generating plant set for 2014, it may look like old technologies are simply being edged out by new renewable energy sources. But only about one-third of the capacity needed to replace Vermont Yankee and Salem Harbor will come from new wind turbines. Natural gas will provide at least half of the replacement, and the rest will come from Canadian hydropower.
The natural gas may come from new production in Pennsylvania and West Virginia’s Marcellus shale. The U.S. Energy Information Administration said the Marcellus shale is one of six formations accounting for nearly all of the growth in U.S. gas production in 2011 and 2012. Hydrofracturing, also known as fracking, and other advanced techniques have been driving dramatic growth in gas production from these formations. This continuing growth in recoverable resources tends to push gas prices down and makes more gas available for generating electricity.
CONSOL Energy Inc., one of the nation’s largest coal mining companies, is also starting to focus more on natural gas exploration and development, selling five of its coal mines in West Virginia. While it is keeping a few mines in Virginia, southern West Virginia, and Pennsylvania, the company is expanding its work in Marcellus shale fields and projects a 30 percent increase in gas production in 2015 and 2016. CONSOL Chairman and CEO J. Brett Harvey said the sale was a difficult decision but good for the company’s long-term growth.
CONSOL sold the mines to Ohio-based Murray Energy, doubling its coal production from 30.1 million tons to 58.6 million tons per year, and nearly tripling its coal reserves from 859 million tons to almost 2.4 billion tons. The work force will more than double, from 3,300 to 7,100 employees. Murray said this would allow the company to better serve coal-fired power plants “with reliable and low-cost coal supplies.”