Debate rages about what would happen if gas-fired electricity were not available or cut substantially. Would coal take its place? Renewables? Something else?
In New England, during January 2013, weather and market conditions led to a decline of gas-fired generation by 18%, compared to January 2012. The drop in gas-fired generation was much greater than the 3% overall decline in electricity consumption in January, 2013.
So what happened when gas-fired generation dropped 18%? What took its place in New England during January 2013? First, renewable power did not fill the gap. It actually declined slightly too.
More electricity from coal, nuclear, and, most surprisingly, oil filled the gap, when gas-fired power generation fell 18%. Indeed, the biggest increases came from coal and petroleum power plants, the two sources that emit the highest levels of air pollution. The result was likely more soot, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and toxic air pollutants as well as more carbon dioxide.
Since coal and natural gas provide together provide about 65% of our electricity and compete intensely with each other for sales, a decline in one will lead to an increase in the other. That market dynamic will continue for at least another 10 years and probably more.