Western Perspectives

Closures threaten 24 percent of US coal-fired electric power plants

By , Communities Digital News

Big Bend Power Station near Apollo Beach, Florida. Warm water from the plant is a favorite habitat for Florida manatees during the winter. / Wknight94 for Wikipedia
Big Bend Power Station near Apollo Beach, Florida. Warm water from the plant is a favorite habitat for Florida manatees during the winter. / Wknight94 for Wikipedia

SALEM, Ore., March 29, 2014 — What will happen if hundreds of U.S. electric power plants shut down next year? Will there be brownouts? Will electric rates increase?

We will find out; up to 24 percent of all coal-fired electric power plants in the United States may shut down because of EPA regulations, according to a new “Today in Energy” report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

Plant operators are scrambling to conform with regulations that take effect in April 2015. States can grant operators an extra year to comply.

EIA: Coal-fired power plants chose compliance strategies to meet new EPA MATS regulations

EIA: Coal-fired power plants chose compliance strategies to satisfy new EPA MATS regulations

Costly new EPA rules, called MATS for Mercury and Toxics Standards, require plant operators to significantly reduce certain air pollutants, including aerosols of mercury, arsenic, chromium, nickel, sodium dioxide and nitrogen oxides.

EPA says the new rules will prevent up to 11,000 premature deaths, 130,000 asthma attacks, 5,700 emergency room visits and 3.2 million restricted activity days. EPA estimates health benefits alone could save $90 billion per year.

New EPA regulations will reduce noxious gas emissions by coal-fired electric power plants

EIA: MATS regulations will reduce noxious gas emissions by coal-fired electric power plants in 2015

The good news is that 69 percent of existing coal plants already comply with the new standard. EIA says 7 percent more plan to meet compliance.

The bad news is that leaves nearly one forth (24 percent) of all coal-fired power plants left to satisfy MATS regulations within the next two years, or close. EIA says 8 percent have already opted for retirement. More are sure to come.

All announced retirements so far are for aging, inefficient plants that operators say are cost prohibitive to retrofit to meet MATS requirements. That still leaves 16 percent undecided.

It’s a big deal because potential plant losses generate about 9 percent of all the electricity used in the United States today. Those plants supply about 360 gigawatt hours per year of electric consumption. In 2012, coal supplied 37 percent of U.S. electricity.

If we take out nearly one quarter of the coal plants, it will have a big impact on electric power generation in the United States over the next several years.

A nice thought would be to replace all those carbon-belching coal plants with zero-emission renewable energy, like wind or solar. However, that’s more costly than retrofitting for MATS and there isn’t time to construct enough renewable capacity to do the job.

Excluding hydroelectric, the potential closures produced 40 percent more electricity now than all renewable energy sources combined, according to EIA data. Most retired plants that do get replaced will be replaced with combined-cycle natural gas.

Some of the 16 percent undecided will be replaced or retrofitted. The cost to do that will increase electric bills for affected customers. It would eventually happen anyway, with or without MATS. Many coal-fired electric plants are more than half a century old. MATS just speeds up the process.

A key unanswered question remains. In addition to the 8 percent already slated for retirement, how many of the 16 percent undecided will opt to retire rather than retrofit?

If most of the undecided chose to retire without replacement, then peak-usage stress put on the power grid will increase the chances of brownouts or blackouts during hot summer days or bitter cold winters in the years to come.



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Steve Davidson is a columnist, wilderness landscape photographer and former teacher, software developer and lecturer who writes about science, technology and the environment.

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