Coal Ash Standoff Could Make Coal Power Plants Hit Kill Switch

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Oh, the irony, it burns! President* Trump promised to bring back coal jobs, but under his watch the nation’s coal power plants have been dropping like flies. Now it looks like the ones left standing could all wink out at the same time. A group of coal power plant stakeholders has just threatened to turn off the lights, due to a regulatory clash over the storage of coal ash.

An idle threat? Maybe! Let’s check in and see what’s going on.

There’s Coal, And Then There’s Coal Ash, And Then There’s “Other Liquid Waste Streams”

Coal power plants produce copious quantities of ash, which is typically stored in ponds or open lagoons. I know, right?

In addition to ash, coal power plants also shuffle liquid waste into the lagoons. That angle hasn’t crossed the CleanTechnica radar before, so if you have any details about that, drop us a note in the comment thread.

Anyways, sooner or later something has to be done about those lagoons. For one thing, they can break and flood neighboring towns and waterways with sopping wet coal ash, as happened early in former president Obama’s first term, back in 2010.

The most recent major spill to catch the media eye occurred in last fall in North Carolina. The previous one occurred in 2014, also in North Carolina. The 2010 episode sent 7.6 million tons of coal ash spilling into Kingston, Tennessee. Aside from environmental impacts, rescue workers are still suffering health impacts (please follow the link and support local journalism).

An ongoing concern is the seepage of toxic chemicals from coal ash lagoons into soil and groundwater, potentially affecting local water supplies.

I’m Taking My Power Plant And Going Home

In 2010 the US Environmental Protection Agency proposed new rules for coal ash disposal, and that’s the root of the current trouble.

Originally the rules called for speedy action, but the industry won a number of extensions. So, environmental groups have raised a number of legal challenges. Last August it looked like the courts were finally ready to put their feet down.

Our friends over at E&E News have the scoop on the latest development. Earlier this week, a group of power plant stakeholders filed papers in federal court to make the case for restoring the extension.

Here’s the money quote from the filing (breaks added and citations deleted for readability):

The law cannot compel the impossible…But impossibility is precisely what power plants across the country would face if forced to immediately cease placing wastestreams into unlined CCR surface impoundments , which EPA states would be the case upon vacatur of the Phase 1 rule . Resp. Mot. at 2.

Without time to develop alternative disposal capacity for the wastestreams generated during power plant operations, operators will face the untenable choice of either ceasing power production — with the attendant risks to power reliability for regions across the country — or continuing to place wastestreams in units that EPA says are required to immediately close.


Clean Coal, My Foot

All this is by way of saying that there is no such thing as clean coal. The US Department of Energy has been tasked with supporting R&D that reduces emissions from coal power plants, but that still leaves a wide open field of environmental impacts related to coal mining, coal transportation, and coal ash disposal.

In an interesting coincidence, just as the coal ash lawsuit was coming to a head, DOE announced its latest round of funding for upgrading the nation’s remaining coal power plants.

The $38 million pot will go to improving flexibility as well as reliability and performance. The flexibility thing is key because, as natural gas stakeholders are fond of arguing, coal power plants lack the agility needed to operate effectively in a grid with renewables.

The funding supports DOE’s ongoing coal combustion research under the Transformative Power Generation and Crosscutting Research programs.

Apparently the agency also expects that the new round of funding will lead to new technologies that enable practically zero emission new coal power plants to be built. It also supports a brand new initiative under the clever semi-acronym Coal FIRST, for “Flexible, Innovative, Resilient, Small and Transformative.”

Part of DOE’s website is down so we’ll go to our friends at Utility Dive for the explainer:

The agency said it envisions a coal fleet of small units, sized 50 MW to 350 MW, with high efficiency and close-to-zero emissions.

DOE says it plans to issue three competitively-funded R&D efforts, which may ultimately culminate in the “design, construction and operation of a coal-based pilot-scale power plant.” Opponents of costly coal development have their doubts, while proponents say the fuel remains essential.

Good luck with that! It’s difficult to see how any rational investor would put money down on an operation that occupies the space between coal mining and coal ash disposal, close-to-zero emissions or not (that goes for the USA; the technology export market could come into play elsewhere).

More likely, the new round of funding will help tidy up the nation’s last remaining coal power plants, much in the way that morticians prepare their subjects for the grave.

So much for bringing back all those coal jobs.

DOE has more details on the new $38 million round of funding. Meanwhile, CleanTechnica is reaching out for some insights regarding where DOE sees potential for improving the flexibility of existing coal power plants, so stay tuned for more on that.

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*Developing story.

Photo (cropped): Aftermath of the Kingston, Tennessee coal ash spill by The Great Cornholio via, creative commons license.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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