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.

| December 2011/January 2012

  • solar-and-wind-power
    Unplugging from coal is an attainable goal: Efficiency increases and shifting to renewables can supply the power we need.
  • piece-of-coal
    Of the 248 proposed coal-fired power plants in the United States since 2000, 154 have been defeated or abandoned.

  • solar-and-wind-power
  • piece-of-coal

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.

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.


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