Air Quality Ripe for Retirement Coal Plants

Published on November 15th, 2012 | by Silvio Marcacci


353 Coal Power Plants Too Expensive To Run In U.S. Power Markets

November 15th, 2012 by  

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.

Ripe for Retirement Coal Plants

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.

Old Coal Plants Concentrated In Eastern US

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

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About the Author

Silvio is Principal at Marcacci Communications, a full-service clean energy and climate policy public relations company based in Oakland, CA.

  • Theo Ong

    Even with free PV and free batteries, solar power cannot compete against coal or nuclear.

    I have the numbers to prove it.

  • Ronald Brak

    In the past few months Australia has mothballed 1,310 megawatts of coal generating capacity and shelved plans for increased natural gas generating capacity. Also, a 520 megawatt coal plant has switched to seasonal load following, cutting its coal use in half. We have been able to cut both our coal and natural gas use and still meet demand thanks to improved efficiency and the spread of point of use solar. Solar power is now the cheapest source of electricity available to Australian households with an unsubsidised cost of about $3 an installed watt. This makes electricity from rooftop solar about two thirds the cost of pruchasing electricity from the grid. As there is no reason why the US can’t invest in efficiency and the cost of solar is continuing to decline, I expect it won’t be long before they take a bite out of both US coal and natural gas use.

    • Carbonicus

      If your govt. hadn’t made electricity artificially more expensive than necessary through climate regulation and renewable energy standards and feed-in tariffs, it would not be possible for solar to be 2/3 the cost of electricity from the grid.
      How do those panels work at night, mate?

      • Luke

        Well, my panels give me a credit on my electricity bill every month, and those batteries that I have get me through the night with more than enough energy to spare.

        Stop bashing solar.

      • Ronald Brak

        The carbon price is 5.7% of Australian household electricity bills, the RET/LRET is 1.7%, feed in tariffs less than 0.1%. This gives a total of under 7.5% of household electricity bills, so with or without them point of use solar is still much cheaper than grid electricity.

    • There are plans to have the people rely on the grid…

  • Carbonicus

    UCS is a non-credible source on the subject as they’ve abdicated science in favor of political pseudo-science on the issue of AGW.

    And your comments that these coal plants
    “will no longer be economically competitive with cleaner sources of energy in America’s power markets soon” implies that wind or solar energy will be cheaper than coal. That’s not going to happen. If it was, after 30 years of heavy fed. govt. subsidization, it would already be the case. It’s the laws of physics and economics and your ideology is not going to change those laws. I’d suggest you learn them, and learn something about energy density.
    What this really says while trying hard not to say it, is that these coal plants will be replaced by nat gas fired plants, which are “cleaner” in terms of real pollutants and lower in CO2 emissions than coal (not that the latter makes an iota of difference because human CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels are not in control of climate).
    For you Green Leftists bent on CO2 emissions reduction regulations (cap/trade, carbon tax, etc.) in the US, here’s a dirty little secret you don’t want public:
    The US has reduced our CO2 emissions to near 1990 levels over the last 6 or so years, simply by converting coal-fired power plants to natural gas and improving energy efficiency. We did this WITHOUT ratifying Kyoto, WITHOUT cap/trade, WITHOUT a carbon tax, WITHOUT economy-wide binding CO2 emissions reduction regulations, WITHOUT artificially increasing the price of gas, etc. We do have you Green Lefties to thank for this in some respect: your war on coal, which forced the private sector to innovate, take risk, and find a substitute. And that substitute was had through fracking (which you’re also trying to kill with misinformation, over-regulation, etc.)
    Clean energy PR.
    Know the difference…..

    • Bill

      Yawn.. Troll much?

      • Carbonicus

        one man’s trolling is another man’s education of the sophomoric, green-goggled masses. (and God you need it).

    • Bob_Wallace

      “UCS is a non-credible source on the subject as they’ve abdicated science in favor of political pseudo-science on the issue of AGW.”

      That’s your opinion. And a bogus opinion it is.

      Tell your fossil fuel friends you failed….

      • Carbonicus

        That’s your opinion. And a bogus opinion it is. (Man, that’s easy, and works so well!!!! Thanks!!!)
        I have no fossil fuel friends. In fact, my only commercial-interest relation is to an alternative energy technology (landfill gas).
        Go ahead. I’ll give you a mulligan and tell you what I told SecularLeftist: debate. argue the facts. attack any single comment in that post.

        • Bob_Wallace

          I’ll start with your claim that “UCS is a non-credible
          source on the subject as they’ve abdicated science in favor of political pseudo-science on the issue of AGW.”

          I’ll ask you to give us some proof of your claim. The part about AGW being pseudo-science.

          Then – “these coal plants “will no longer be economically competitive with cleaner sources of energy in America’s power markets soon” implies that wind or solar energy will be cheaper than coal. That’s not going to happen.”

          That is already happening. Coal plants are being shut seasonally in the PNW because cheaper wind and hydro are supplying the grid. Over 100 coal plants have been shut down or are scheduled for near year closure because it is cheaper to replace them with wind and natural gas than to upgrade them.

          Then you claim ” because human CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels are not in control of climate”. If what you mean by “in control” is that elevated CO2 levels are not causing a rise in planet temperature and more extreme weather then the really smart kids in the class, the climate scientists, have news for you.

          “The US has reduced our CO2 emissions to near 1990 levels over the last 6 or so years, simply by converting coal-fired power plants to natural gas and improving energy efficiency.”

          That’s not news to us “lefties”. We’ve had articles about how US CO2 emissions peaked in 2005 and have fallen since. And we think that’s a good thing. The problem, we aren’t lowering them fast enough.

          You seem to be conflicted. You seem to want to deny global climate change and at the same time want to talk about the ways we’re lowering our CO2 emissions.

          • Carbonicus

            OK, will try to break it down for you.

            I won’t argue that AGW is a laughingstock to you or those on this site. Hopefully, we will all live long enough that you will learn what the Catholic church learned in that little dustup with Galileo about 400 years ago: “consensus” is a political term. Science doesn’t do consensus (and the sun doesn’t revolve around the earth, as per their “consensus”).

            But as to the UCS, their statements on climate change are not grounded in empirical evidence (you will have to read them, then check them against the empirical evidence yourself), they put out pitiful misinformation that melts upon the most basic scrutiny , they work to block FOIA requests that threaten their “consensus” and if you have $35 and a credit card and an address, you too can be a member, EVEN IF YOU ARE A DOG
            Next, the comment on price of wind/solar stands. We’re not talking about hydro. You greens hate hydro anyhow. Wind isn’t cheaper, nor more reliable, nor on demand than coal.
            We don’t disagree that nat gas will replace coal. Nat gas is a fossil fuel so you Greens will war against it in favor of wind/solar. But you have energy density, cost, reliability, inability to store, and inability to transport problems you’ll NEVER overcome.
            Next, human CO2 emissions are NOT causing a rise in planetary temperatures (they are following a planetary rise in temperatures, as they have over the eons. Oceans contain 64 times the amount of CO2 as the atmosphere. When liquids warm, gases come out of solution. Go complain to Ike Newton). We’ve now had 16 years with no statistically significant warming. All while CO2 emissions continue to climb (about 40 ppm over that time). Also, there is no trend in extreme weather, anywhere, period. One significant example: weeks after Gore proclaimed in 2005 that Katrina was caused by AGW and we’d see more severe and frequent hurricanes, we began a period that now has run 7 consecutive years without a major (cat 3>) Atlantic Basin hurricane hitting US shores.
            Glad to see you accept US is around 1990 CO2 emissions levels. That’s fact. I already gave you guys credit for the war on coal that helped cause that. But private sector gets the credit for fracking (do I hear teeth nashing???). As to not “lowering them fast enough”, I believe our rate would put our reduction of the last decade at a faster rate than any other industrialized nation on the planet. Germany, a Kyoto signatory, burned 3% MORE coal last year after eco-socialist Merkel knee-jerked the closing of Germany’s nuke power plants.
            I am not conflicted. I am heavily, heavily researched, with almost 25 years in the environmental industry. “Climate change” is nothing to deny. Humans have an immaterial impact, and by definition “climate” is always “changing” (it is an average). My reference to the ways we’re lowering US CO2 emissions has solely to do with the now-unequivocal absence of need for regulation to do so, having reduced our emissions to ~1990 levels ABSENT REGULATION.

    • SecularAnimist

      Your incoherent and rambling comment is full of blatant falsehoods, regarding both renewable energy technologies and the science of climate change. Whether you are dishonest or merely ignorant, the fact that you introduce your torrent of nonsense and silly name-calling by accusing the Union of Concerned Scientists of “pseudo-science” is hilarious. If the purpose of this clownish performance was to embarrass yourself in public, you succeeded.

      • Carbonicus

        Really? Then it should be no problem for you to drop the ad hominem attack and get down to business. Blatant falsehoods regarding both renewable energy and climate change? Sounds simple the way you put it.
        So, go ahead. Debate. Argue the facts. Attack any comment in that post. Go ahead. I’m waiting.

        • You’re accusing the USC of pseudo-science but basing your own position on the non-consensus claim that “human CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels are not in control of climate”.

          I await your extraordinary evidence.

          • Carbonicus

            There. You stepped in it yourself.
            “Consensus” is NOT a scientific term. Consensus is a political term. USC does political pseudo-science consensus PR. Original comment stands.
            In actual science, all it takes is one counter-hypothesis that is testable, provable, and repeatable to destroy your “consensus”.
            16 years of no statistically significant “global warming”, despite an inexorable rise in CO2 levels over that period.
            7 years, longest stretch in over 100 years, since a major Atlantic Basin hurricane hit the US coast. This after we were told after the wicked Katrina year (2005) that “this is what global warming looks like” and we couild expect more frequent/severe storms.
            Tornadoes? 2012 near an all time low in US.
            CO2 emissions and atmospheric concentrations still going up. If they were in control of climate, why no statistically significant warming in 16 years (as attested to by the world’s 4 major datasets, including the “scientists” who made a mockery of science at UEA).
            If you wish to deconstruct industrialization and modern standards of living, the burden is on YOU to put forth the “extraordinary evidence”. So far, your grade is a massive FAIL. Empirical evidence trumps your ever-diverging-from-reality computer models.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Science very much works by consensus. Scientists within a field look at the available data and the best ideas of how the data fits together.

            They arrive at a consensus based on data. If new data arises then consensus can, and does, change.

            Now, I’m tired of your crap. There are other places for people to entertain themselves with crackpot theories and cherry-picked data. So we’re going to say goodbye to you.

            Have a nice day….

          • So you admit you’re wrong.

    • Anne

      Time to wake up, carbolicus,

      Coal has many hidden costs, happily ignored by those with a pro-pollution agenda. With fully accounting all costs, coal is easily the most expensive source of energy.

      Talking about subsidies: fossil fuel has enjoyed government money for more than 2 centuries. And the subsidies continue until this day. Nuclear is even worse. No investor will touch it even with a 10 foot pole without government guarantees. For you to say renewables are not viable because they receive subsidies is a position borne out of pure ignorance.

      You are bending reality by suggesting fossil fuel prices will remain flat, which needs the basic law of supply and demand to suddenly not apply anymore. That’s economics 101 you failed right there, Carbolicus. Fossil power will rapidly become more expensive over the coming years.

      And the other impossibility you dream of is that renewable power sources have reached a technical end point. Ever progressing technology is one of the constants throughout human history. Especially PV still has a lot of room for improvement. It will be the cheapest form of power generation by the end of this decade. It already is in some markets.

      And your third logic failure is to think that efficiency is enough to prevent catastrophic climate change. Wake up, it can’t. We will always need energy and a power plant has a physical limit of 100% efficiency. Fossil fuels are a dead end.

      Nice try, but you won’t fool anyone here.

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