The impossible sometimes happens. That is the lesson of the revolutionary changes in how electricity is generated in the USA since 2008.
Indeed, as of January 2008, not a single expert said that by 2012 gas and non-hydro renewable energy would increase their generation market shares by 51% and 76% respectively, while coal would lose 25% of its share. Those thoughts were not thought. They were impossible.
But that's exactly what has happened in the last 4 years--an incredible revolution in the electricity industry.
In 2008, coal accounted for 48% of electric generation but 36% in the first 7 months of 2012.
In 2008, gas provided 21.4% of our power and 31% in 2012 through July.
In 2008, non-hydro renewable energy generated 3.1% of America's electricity and now 5.4%.
These facts also underscore two critical points that are important in the fracking wars and a real understanding of America's energy choices. First, despite what some say repeatedly, the shale gas boom has not killed renewable energy. Instead, gas and renewable energy have boomed at the same time.
Among the multiple reasons why low gas prices have not done in renewable energy are that: (1) competitive electric generation markets favor low-production cost generation and renewable facilities are the lowest production cost units; (2) state and federal incentives for renewable energy work to attract substantial private investment and new capacity; and (3) the capital costs of building wind and solar have been slashed over the last 10 years.
A second critical point that the facts above demonstrate is the intense competition between gas and coal for market share. From 2008 through the first 7 months of 2012, gas gained about 10 percentage points of market share (21% to 31%). Gas's gain was coal's loss, as coal lost 12 percentage points (48% to 36%).
This coal-gas duel continues everyday, and rising gas prices make it likely that coal will recapture some of its lost market share during 2013.
Will coal continue to regain some lost ground after 2013? The price of gas will largely answer that question.
But, after the last 5 years of incredible changes like the shale gas revolution and plummeting solar prices, the only thing that can be said surely about the next 5 years within the electric industry is that little is impossible.