For Coal Plants, the End of an Era

Over the past few years, a powerful movement has emerged in response to climate concerns: opposition to new coal-fired power plants.
By Lester R. Brown
December 2011/January 2012

Of the 248 proposed coal-fired power plants in the United States since 2000, 154 have been defeated or abandoned.

Content Tools

Related Content

Getting the Facts About the Global Warming E-mail Scandal

Learn why “Climategate” got so much attention, what scientists and skeptics are saying about it, and...

Luck Changes for Endangered Right Whales

Politicians are requiring ships to slow down, and scientists are tracking right whale communication....

Protest for Clean Energy

Last weekend more than 12,000 people flocked to Washington, D.C., for a three day demonstration to d...

Incredible Volume Of Useful Information

Where we find a wealth of information for projects and enjoyable reading.

As evidence mounts that the continued burning of fossil fuels is disrupting the Earth’s climate, efforts to eradicate coal-fired power plants are increasing. While there are many undesirable consequences of coal’s popular role in energy production — including its adverse effects on human health and the land from which it’s extracted — the main concern is that coal emissions are the primary driver of climate change. Burning coal releases more CO2 per unit of energy than any other energy source.

Coal Plants: The Turning Tide

What began as a few local ripples of resistance to coal power quickly evolved into a national tidal wave of grass-roots opposition from environmental, health, farm and community organizations. Despite a heavily funded industry campaign to promote “clean coal,” the American public is turning against coal. In a national poll that asked which electricity source people would prefer, only 3 percent chose coal. The Sierra Club, which has kept a tally of proposed coal-fired power plants in the United States and their fates since 2000, reports that 154 of 248 plant proposals have been defeated or abandoned.

An early turning point in the coal war came in June 2007 when Florida’s Public Service Commission refused to license a huge $5.7 billion, 1,960-megawatt coal plant because the utility proposing it could not prove that building the plant would be cheaper than investing in conservation, efficiency or renewable energy. This point is frequently made by lawyers from the nonprofit legal group Earthjustice, and combined with widely expressed public opposition to more coal-fired power plants in Florida, led to the quiet withdrawal of four other coal plant proposals in the state.

Coal’s future also suffered as Wall Street, pressured by the Rainforest Action Network, turned its back on the industry. In February 2008, investment banks Morgan Stanley, Citi and JPMorgan Chase announced that any future lending for coal-fired power would be contingent on the utilities demonstrating that the plants would be economically viable considering the higher costs associated with potential future federal restrictions on carbon emissions.

Broadening the Focus

Now that the United States has a near de facto moratorium on the licensing of new coal-fired power plants, the focus is shifting to the closing of existing coal plants. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) announced in August 2010 that it was planning to close nine of 59 coal-generating units within its plants. Duke Energy, another major southeastern utility, followed with an announcement that it was considering the closure of seven coal-fired units in North Carolina and South Carolina alone. Progress Energy, also in the Carolinas, is planning to close 11 units at four sites. In Pennsylvania, Exelon Power is preparing to close four coal units at two sites. Xcel Energy, the dominant utility in Colorado, announced it was closing seven coal units. And in April 2011, TVA agreed to close another nine units as part of a legal settlement with the Environmental Protection Agency. In an analysis of the future of coal, Wood Mackenzie, a leading energy consulting and research firm, describes these closings as a harbinger of things to come for the coal industry.

The chairman of the powerful U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Jon Wellinghoff, observed in early 2009 that the United States may no longer need additional coal plants. Regulators, investment banks and political leaders are now beginning to see what has been obvious for some time to climate scientists: It makes no sense to build coal-fired power plants only to bulldoze them in a few years.

Closing coal plants in the United States may be much easier than it appears. If the energy efficiency level of the other 49 states were raised to that of New York, the most energy-efficient state, the energy saved would be sufficient to close 80 percent of the country’s coal-fired power plants. The remaining plants could be shut down by turning to renewables.

A Message to the World

The U.S. transition from coal to wind and solar is underway. Between 2007 and 2010, U.S. coal use dropped 8 percent. During the same period, and despite the recession, 300 new wind farms came online.

With the likelihood that few, if any, new coal-fired power plants will be approved in the United States, this moratorium sends a message to the world. Denmark and New Zealand have already banned new coal-fired power plants. As of late 2010, Hungary was on the verge of closing its one remaining coal plant. Ontario, where 39 percent of Canadians live, plans to phase out coal entirely by 2014. Scotland announced in May that it plans to get 100 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2020. Even China, the world’s largest energy consumer (primarily from coal), is surging ahead with renewable energy and now leads the world in new wind farm installations. In contrast to investments in oil fields and coal mines, where depletion and abandonment are inevitable, renewable energy sources are inexhaustible.

Although the prospects look good for moving away from coal, timing is key. Can we close coal-fired power plants fast enough to save the Greenland ice sheet? If not, sea level will rise 23 feet. Hundreds of coastal cities will be abandoned. There will be hundreds of millions of environmental refugees. If we cannot mobilize to save the Greenland ice sheet, we probably cannot save civilization as we know it.

Adapted from World on the Edge by Lester R. Brown. 

Lester R. Brown is President of Earth Policy Institute and author of Full Planet, Empty Plates. He is recognized worldwide for his global perspective on environmental issues and for his development of Plan B, a plan to save civilization through stabilizing population, cutting carbon emissions, and restoring the earth’s natural support systems. Find him on .

Previous | 1 | 2 | Next

Post a comment below.


7/24/2013 11:52:18 AM

False, Poland still invests in coal plants

1/19/2012 9:18:17 PM
There does appear to be quite a bit wrong with this article. Some coal plants are being closed down. Many of these plants are old and not worth the investment to update them with the required environmental controls. If you look at the decline of coal generation, much of it will be replaced with natural gas (i.e. cogens). Wind and solar (photovoltaic) combined presently accounts for less than 2% of our generation. The bulk of the 10% we get from renewables comes from Hydro and Biomass generation. We don't have any good ways of storing energy. Pump storage facilities are one way, but they aren't particularly efficient and you are limited to location. We generally use it as we generate it. We have to be able to control the amount we generate to meet load at any given time. Until we come up with a way to store tremendous amounts of energy (super battery) wind and solar can't replace much of our other generation sources. The price of natural gas and coal will determine their use more than anything.

1/10/2012 1:31:05 AM
Obama, one term President. He wants jobs, only green jobs. No oil, no coal, no nuclear, no natural gas. NO FOSSIL FUELS! Let the market and the consumers decide what is best, not the government.

1/7/2012 6:13:24 PM
It's me again. For those of you who are running around in circles, waving your hands in the air, and shouting "we are killing the earth" we are NOT. We may wipe out the human race, but the earth will abide. JC

1/7/2012 5:35:51 PM
There are so many things wrong with this article it is hard to know where to start. First the sky is not falling. Check out Michigan and the great lakes. If not for the glacier ice sheet of the last ice age they would not exist and humankind had no hand in either the creation of nor the melting of those ice sheets. Now as for coal fired electric plants; fluid bed gasification of coal. Look it up, might surprise you. JC

1/6/2012 10:31:28 PM
“So if somebody wants to build a coal-fired plant they can. It’s just that it will bankrupt them…” – Barack Obama speaking to San Francisco Chronicle, January 2008 Now under Obama's direction with the EPA are closing down over a hundred of plants with heavy fines and costs. False testimonies on global warming; perpetration of the myth about endangered polar bears; ongoing distortion of the UN IPCC process; activism to fight the development of affordable coal, oil and natural gas; hypocrites who won’t follow their own recommendations; and expansion of already excessive environmental regulations. Obama, one term President!

1/6/2012 9:44:44 PM
I used to work in power generation. Then I worked in vehicle emissions eqpt. The 'dirty' little secret that the Green Folks won't tell you is that the air IS cleaner now than it was 25 years ago. What we've done already HAS worked. But they talk as if we've done nothing. And it will cost us in the long run. So the idea that we can't do things CLEANER is both a lie and unfounded. And here's the ultimate question. Given our current power usage, how will we power our lives if we don't build ANY new power plants? Personally I'm going off the grid ASAP. But I know HOW to do that. Most people do not. The coal plant / nuke plant nay sayers are all about saving the planet, but they often forget the highest form of life on the planet when attempting their deeds. They forget human beings. If you want to find out just how serious these anti-coal truly are, ask them just how much of THEIR electrical eqpt have THEY thrown out, sold, quit using? I've asked this question. Mostly I get stuttering and stammering. Especially when I point out how many electrical devices grandpa and grandma had. They had light bulbs, a radio or two and maybe a refrigerator. Most of us have more than that JUST in our den. Bottom line folks, what we need is more coal plants and we need to work on making them cleaner. Nobody EVER made anything better by banning it or shutting it down! Steve in Clayton NC

Dopey Dwarf
1/6/2012 4:14:44 PM
Here you go:

Dopey Dwarf
1/6/2012 4:11:37 PM
The problem with wood is that if it is not treated first, it puts volatiles into the atmosphere and leaves tar behind. It needs to go through a process called torrefaction, which basically makes it into synthetic coal, or bio-coal. That process is energy intensive and makes the wood more expensive. Personally, I would rather have one large stationary emitter that is regulated (i.e. a coal fired power plant with the environmental control technologies), than have an enormous amount of unregulated smaller power sources (people burning anything on their property for heat and electricity - no environmental controls).

Dopey Dwarf
1/6/2012 4:05:10 PM
Research money IS being spent on coal development.

John Weston
1/6/2012 3:52:37 PM
I am not against burning coal, nor oil for that matter, as we have to use these energy sources as the bridge to cleaner alternative energy. We can't just flip a switch and miraculously have a grid powered by solar, wind, etc. But we have to make it as clean as possible without tripling energy costs in the mean time. I'm tired of polluted water and fish that I can't eat more than once a week! However, the real solution is to produce the energy as close to the point of use as possible. Ideally, we should be looking into technologies which allow consumers to produce energy at the home or business as a serious supplement to legacy production methods, like coal or nuclear. The grid is not the most efficient means of getting the energy to where it is needed and opens us up to serious security issues.

1/6/2012 3:26:01 PM
Really, 23 feet! Why not use Gore's idiot number of 39 feet!? Climate Scientists, just who are some of these people? I am so sick of the generic term used, with no support. Remember how the leading Scientists knew that Spontaneous Generation was a fact! Microbes could not make you sick! The Earth was the center of the Solar System! The World was flat!!! Here is an interesting fact about our planet, we are at one of only three geological times with CO2 levels this low! Then of course there is this bit of factual information, Last but not least is how the planets have all been warming and cooling over the last decade plus at the same rate as Earth, must be the fumes!!!

J.Russell Bailey
1/6/2012 3:07:49 PM
AMEN Marsha! The PROPAGANDA piece we've all read is WORTHLESS.....yet more DRIVEL by another Radical Enviro-Whacko instead of anythng actually usable and I pointed out in my own comment, Mr. Brown does a very BAD 'sleight of hand' about the PRC, NOT telling us the truth, which is that the PRC is bringing a NEW Coal Fired Power Plant online EACH MONTH....12 a YEAR.....but nary a word about that fact.........and he won't touch or go near what you pointed out and also what I noted: HOW MUCH closing coal fired plants is going to cost Americans......Barack Obama only told one truth during his 2008 campaign: he promised that if he was elected, our utility rates would SKYROCKET as would our fuel bills!!!! Now THAT is a promise he has in fact kept........that's why in 2012 Prez Election, I'm Hopin for some Real Change of occupant at 1600 Penn Ave.......

Coal War
1/6/2012 2:18:34 PM
Maybe we should concentrate on burning the wood more efficiently and forget about the coal.

1/6/2012 2:03:49 PM
Phasing out coal-fired power plants is a ridiculous idea since we have so much of it in this country and it is cheap in comparison to solar and wind green technologies. Coal can be made to burn much cleaner with the addition of wood chips which Germany is currently doing and it is meeting air quality standards. Throwing coal out of our energy mix is like tossing the proverbial baby with the bath water as it is not going to solve our long term energy needs. Research money needs to be spent on coal development which has a proven track record. All this knee jerk environmental reactionary nonsense has to stop as it solves nothing.

12/28/2011 1:53:00 AM Here is a tool for predicting the mercury level in fish based on the air deposition of mercury.

12/28/2011 12:32:14 AM
I don't know of "the other side" on UHI, at least as far as science goes, In addition to direct temperature measurements we know the earth is warming from: Satellite Data Radiosondes Borehole analysis Glacial melt observations Sea ice melt Sea level rise Proxy Reconstructions Permafrost melt

12/28/2011 12:07:51 AM
article on UHI:

12/27/2011 11:52:29 PM
You have to cut and paste the URL. No, links do not work directly from MEN. Your link didn't work, but I went to their home page and got it. The correct URL is:

12/27/2011 11:42:54 PM
Here is another article which addresses UHI:

Justin Kobielusz
12/27/2011 10:46:20 PM
All I have to say is Wow, I have read this article several times and I still can’t believe that somebody could be this mislead about coal. I am all for sustainable energy sources on a small scale, but it will never replace coal. Coal is the only way we can power our entire nation. Instead of wasting money on wind energy we should be putting it to a better use and building cleaner plants. The fact is that we have enough coal to last at the current burn rate for over 250 years, we just need to figure out how to use it wisely. For those that are still convinced about wind energy I say please drive the southern half of Wyoming. There is nothing but wind turbines that are ruining the great scenery that makes up Wyoming. Not to mention all the problems with birds, and other animals. This is not the solution, only another problem that we will have to clean up in the coming years.

Marsha Newlon
12/27/2011 2:53:15 PM
A great deal of time is spent on this site comparing the energy imprint versus cost. Why hasn't anyone compared the impact on carbon reduction with the closing of the coal plants on the pocketbook of the poor ? The impact of carbon reduction is pitifully minor (significantly less than one percentage point), and the economic result will be staggering. I predict that the real impact will be hatred of all things globally warming. I do not think that this one was scientifically studied for true worth. It is a problem when the sheep follow without thinking...sometimes they walk off a cliff.

12/27/2011 12:28:25 PM
How did you ever find an article discounting the UHI Effect? That's the one thing both sides concede is real. Your credibility is now in extreme doubt.. ..Links don't seem to work here, so just check out today's (12/27/11) WUWT lead article explaining how the EPA has used false science & unethical practices to push its agenda for coal plant closures and the economic impact that will have on us. We'll be returning to the days of Little House on the Prairie.

12/27/2011 5:20:09 AM
When the AGU, APS, NOAA, NAS and every other scientific institution in the US and the national academies of the rest of the world come out in favor of UFOs and Kennedy assinasination, get back to me. Until then its very unfair to compare that with global warming. We have agreed to stay away from the popular press, That means we aren't going to bring up things like that.

12/26/2011 4:49:07 AM
OH,, The American Tradion Institute doesn't like it that Hansen gets a lot of speaking fees, prizes, ect, why does he get those, because he is good ? That he gets those things just enhances his credibility. If he gets the Noble Prize, is that legal ? What did Obama do with his prize money ? If it turns out there is a case, any wrong doer should be prosectuted. (that is both sides of the asile) Exxon funds the deniers, but that's legal, but that doesn't give them more credibility.

12/26/2011 4:16:37 AM
I have posts at top and bottom of the thread, sorry.

12/26/2011 4:14:46 AM
There were some instances when some groups who don't believe in science filed a FOI request for info about Hansen and Mann. Hansen has been dragged off by the police more than once for civil dis-obdience. protesting coal mines ect.

12/26/2011 3:32:54 AM
Here is about GISS, I don't see anything about weighting, It does say that areas far from civilation experience more global warming.

12/26/2011 3:11:55 AM Here is an article about global cooling. Hansen is mentioned. It seems that he set us straight.

12/26/2011 1:56:04 AM This paper says there is no impact from urbanization.

12/25/2011 8:49:14 PM
Would that be the James Hansen who is being investigated for ethics violations, illegally profitting by a million bucks due to his govt job, the same one who was trying to convince us in 1970 that another Ice Age was coming?...BTW, speaking of NASA, you never got back to me on why GISS insists on weighting rural temps up instead of the more logical (if we need to weight data at all) weighting of urban heat island effect temps down....We can't trust the data, the theory is exaggerated and it's supposed effects are exactly wrong... Other than that, AGW is a great story now that the press has given up on UFOs & the Kennedy Assassination Conspiracy. .

12/25/2011 12:42:01 AM James Hansen is one of the world's premminent climate scientists. NASA is not the popular press.

12/25/2011 12:30:46 AM Please review Professor Hayhoe's slides. The ice sheets are covered. She is a climate scientist, not popular press.

12/25/2011 12:02:37 AM I completely agree. We should be reading real science and not just the popular press. When would you like to start doing that ?

12/24/2011 12:02:18 PM
West Antarctic ice is calving into the sea becasue ice is accummulating in east Antarctica. Total S. Pole ice is increasing. Loss of ice on Greenland's edges is also compensated by gain in the interior; total ice only slightly lower now than a century ago....Asians migrated to the west hemisphere during the Ice Age along a now submerged west coast of NA. Things change cyclically, naturally. You can't keep things stagnant under a giant bell jar. And try reading some real science and not just the popular press.

12/24/2011 5:09:50 AM
wow, agreed, the western anarctic and greenland ice sheets are each worth about 20 ft in sea level rise.

12/22/2011 8:32:19 PM
Sea levels are rising at a rate of ~10cm over the past CENTURY (without arguing about why they're rising). The DAILY variation in sea level due to tides at NY City is 165cm. Try to keep things in perspective before you panic.

12/22/2011 7:28:52 PM
so when NYC is under water, I will look to you to pay to move it, do we have a deal ?

12/20/2011 3:05:05 PM
More propaganda from the MEA from their ClimateGate editors.

12/19/2011 7:59:02 PM
Another outstanding article by MEN. It is 100 % right on.

John Gallagher
12/19/2011 4:04:43 AM
You haven't seen Global Warming until the Nuke Plants all melt down!

John Gallagher
12/19/2011 4:02:33 AM
Political Propaganda !!! Phooey!!!!!

12/11/2011 8:48:48 PM
Never thought I would see so many falsehoods in one story on Mother. Sad.

12/11/2011 8:46:39 PM
Global Warming...ever heard of the Great Lakes??? Don't forget that ALL of North America was once covered by an ice sheet.

12/5/2011 10:11:12 PM
Well said!

12/5/2011 8:49:07 PM
When your electrical bill doubles because of the cost of solar and wind and green energy and you are limited to the amount of electrical energy that you can use, then you will dry about the 300 plus years of coal that lays in the ground that could have been creating cheap energy to drive our nation and helping America to rebuild.... Without a inexpensive source of energy, America will continue to degenerate..... Coal is not polluting our world.... One volcano can spews out more CO, CO2, dust, dirt, ash and other pollutants that created by all of the coal plants.... Global warming is not due to CO2, but changes in solar activity..... So when my electrical bill doubles, I will look to the environmentalists to pay the amount over what i am currently paying......

steve specht
12/5/2011 4:55:22 PM
This article fails to mention that China is increasing it's coal use tremendously. In 2000, China mined 1 billion short tons of coal. In 2010 they mined over 3 billion.

12/5/2011 4:23:43 PM
“So if somebody wants to build a coal-fired plant they can. It’s just that it will bankrupt them…” – Barack Obama speaking to San Francisco Chronicle, January 2008 Now under Obama's direction with the EPA are closing down over a hundred of plants with heavy fines and costs. False testimonies on global warming; perpetration of the myth about endangered polar bears; ongoing distortion of the UN IPCC process; activism to fight the development of affordable coal, oil and natural gas; hypocrites who won’t follow their own recommendations; and expansion of already excessive environmental regulations.

Subscribe Today - Pay Now & Save 66% Off the Cover Price

First Name: *
Last Name: *
Address: *
City: *
State/Province: *
Zip/Postal Code:*
(* indicates a required item)
Canadian subs: 1 year, (includes postage & GST). Foreign subs: 1 year, . U.S. funds.
Canadian Subscribers - Click Here
Non US and Canadian Subscribers - Click Here

Lighten the Strain on the Earth and Your Budget

MOTHER EARTH NEWS is the guide to living — as one reader stated — “with little money and abundant happiness.” Every issue is an invaluable guide to leading a more sustainable life, covering ideas from fighting rising energy costs and protecting the environment to avoiding unnecessary spending on processed food. You’ll find tips for slashing heating bills; growing fresh, natural produce at home; and more. MOTHER EARTH NEWS helps you cut costs without sacrificing modern luxuries.

At MOTHER EARTH NEWS, we are dedicated to conserving our planet’s natural resources while helping you conserve your financial resources. That’s why we want you to save money and trees by subscribing through our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. By paying with a credit card, you save an additional $5 and get 6 issues of MOTHER EARTH NEWS for only $12.00 (USA only).

You may also use the Bill Me option and pay $17.00 for 6 issues.