As many as 353 coal-fired power plants across 31 states should be considered for closing, because the electricity they produce will no longer be economically competitive with cleaner sources of energy in America’s power markets soon.
This analysis comes from the Union of Concerned Scientists’ “Ripe for Retirement” report, which found that 18% of all U.S. coal generation capacity would not compete with natural gas or wind energy generation after being upgraded with modern pollution controls. The findings mirror a recent survey of utility executives that found coal’s fiscal outlook plummeting.
These plants collectively represent 6% of all power generated in America, roughly 59 gigawatts (GW) of generation capacity. Generally speaking, they average 45 years of age – well beyond the 30-year expected coal plant lifespan – and are much less efficient than other coal plants, operating at only 47% of capacity compared to 64% for the overall coal fleet.
Older + Less Efficient = Dirtier
But perhaps most importantly, the Ripe for Retirement plants are much dirtier than all other forms of U.S. electricity generation. Roughly 70% of these generators lack equipment to control emissions of three of four harmful pollutants – sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, mercury, or soot.
Closing these 353 plants would add to the 41 GW of coal plants currently slated for retirement and reduce America’s electric power sector’s annual carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by up to 410 million tons, or 16.4% of current levels. Federal reports have consistently found coal is the dirtiest energy source in America.
“Switching to cleaner energy sources and investing in energy efficiency often makes more economic sense than spending billions to extend the life of obsolete coal plants,” said Steve Frenkel, UCS’s Midwest office director. “Spending billions to upgrade old coal plants may simply be throwing good money after bad.”
Coal Closures Won’t Threaten Grid
Critics of coal plant retirements say losing such a large percentage of baseload generation would threaten blackouts, but the UCS report finds that retiring the 353 plants wouldn’t risk grid reliability or price spikes.
Current U.S. natural gas generation capacity only operated at 39% design capacity in 2010, and running natural gas plants at 85% capacity would generate more electricity than the Ripe for Retirement fleet. America’s largest grid operator has already found natural gas replacing coal on the basis of market forces.
In addition, reductions in generation capacity might not have to be replaced at all if states boosted clean energy measures. Existing policies are expected to spur installation of 55 GW of new renewable capacity by 2020, and energy efficiency measures are projected to reduce overall demand 5.7% by 2020.
An Historic Opportunity
Much of the Ripe for Retirement fleet is located in states with booming renewable energy capacity installations, or states with under-realized renewable energy generation potential. Beyond an opening to reduce harmful emissions and slow climate change, replacing these coal dinosaurs is a chance to grow a green economy.
“This is an historic opportunity to accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy. Decisions we will make in the next three to five years can improve public health, reduce global warming, and create a more resilient energy system,” said Frenkel.
Images via Union of Concerned Scientists
Silvio is Principal at Marcacci Communications, a full-service clean energy public relations company based in Washington, D.C.