How Much Longer Will Coal-Fired Power Plants Last?

coal-fired-power-plantCoal plants are slowly making their way to the back burner as natural gas and renewable energy take center stage.  A report from the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE) showed that over 200 coal-fired electric generating units are to be shut down across 25 different states within the next three to five years.

For the first time in decades, natural gas has caught up with coal power for America’s main source of electricity.  Each energy source represented 32 percent of the industry in 2012, with natural gas expected to flourish in the immediate future.  The Environmental Protection Agency’s new regulations on air pollution are certainly having an impact on this phenomenon since coal burns much more inefficiently than most alternatives, especially natural gas.  Mike Duncan, President and CEO of ACCCE, is critical of the new regulations, “this is further evidence that EPA is waging war on coal, and a war on affordable electricity prices and jobs.  EPA continues to ignore the damage that its new regulations are causing to the U.S. economy and to states that depend on coal for jobs and affordable electricity.”

This past September, seven coal-fired electric plants in four different states closed their doors.  FirstEnergy Corp. closed these power plants in West Virginia, Ohio, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, claiming that the old plants are unable to meet new environmental regulations.  Company officials have also confirmed that three others in Ohio will close in 2015.  Additionally, two Midwest Generation plants in Chicago, and seven GenOn Energy plants in Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey closed earlier this year.

The most recent closure was this week; the nation’s largest coal consumer, American Electric Power (AEP), announced that it will be shutting down the coal-burning boilers at the Big Sandy plant located near Louisa, Kentucky.  This 1,100 megawatt electric power plant will close its doors in 2015 for the first time since opening in the early 1960s.  In order to replace Big Sandy’s production, electricity will be brought in from West Virginia, which will lead to an eight percent rate increase for customers.

According to the Sierra Club, all of these closings will leave only 395 coal-burning power plants in the U.S.  That is a significant drop when compared to the 522 plants that operated just two years ago.

Even though coal exports to Europe and Asia have grown, production has dropped by seven percent this year.  Manager of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign said it best: “anyway you count it, this is the worst year ever for coal.  And to see Big Sandy added to the list – it underscores how the economics of coal have turned so fast.”

Sarah Battaglia
Energy Curtailment Specialists, Inc.

Sarah can be found on LinkedIn and Google+.

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  • Jaime Saldarriaga

    Couldn’t the burning coal residuals be recycled?

  • Sarah Battaglia

    Yes, coal residuals could be recycled. I read that the EPA is working on a process that will successfully do this. The proper precautions must be taken, otherwise this harmful substance can leak into the ground, contaminating our drinking water.

  • Domingo G. Ramos Jr.

    Coal residuals (coal ash)as a coal by-product is commonly used as additive in the production of high quality cement products, it creates a strongr, more durable finished products and also eliminates or at least lessens the environmental impact of dumping coal-ash in landfills that can harm or contaminate potable water.

  • Sarah Battaglia

    I agree that adding the coal residuals to cement is a plausible alternative, but what happens after 60 years when the cement begins to break down? I know you said high quality, but what if the coal was put into a sidewalk? Will the coal residuals stay where they are? Or will they slowly begin to sink further and further into the ground?

  • Jan Gorski

    Many answers to questions about the future of CCS systems can be found in our book, “Zero Emissions Power Cycles” CRC, Boca Raton, 2009), see

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