Coal Power is Decreasing, But Not Because of Regulations

Photograph courtesy of Alexander Khodarev/

Power plants that burn one of our most polluting fuel sources, coal, are shutting down because of natural gas prices, market conditions, and decrease in demand— and more of them may be closed in the next decade than originally predicted.


The Brattle Group, a research and consulting firm, recently revised its 2010 estimate of how much coal power would be phased out by 2016. In the group’s update, the researchers increased the number by about 25,000 megawatts, or 25 gigawatts (GW), to up to 77 GW of coal plant capacity that could retire in the next five years. That’s 24 percent of the 317 GW of electricity generated by coal in the U.S.


The reason for the change, however, is not because of stricter government regulations. Those, if anything, are more lenient than expected, allowing energy companies to take longer to fulfill requirements, the authors state. Instead, cheap natural gas and less demand for energy because of a slow economy and temperate seasons are the reasons they cite.


“It’s an extraordinary shift — far bigger than anything the EPA could engineer — and it’s an unqualified good for public health and the fight against climate change,” says Grist’s David Roberts.


Earlier this year the EPA did put regulations in place to limit mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants, but the final rules “were finalized with less restrictive requirements on the compliance deadlines and equipment than previously predicted,” write the authors.


The agency also proposed carbon emissions limits for new power plants as well, which could further decrease the number of coal plants in existence.


Environmental groups have also put pressure on energy companies and the government to shut down coal-fired power plants. In December of 2011 Audubon and the Sierra Club successfully negotiated a deal with the Southwestern Electric Power Co. (SWEPCO) to shut down an old coal plant in Texas prior to constructing a new plant. 


Utility Products’ Power Industry News also reports that the Tennessee Valley Authority is now only producing one-third of its power from coal, down from 52 percent in 2011.


About two billion tons of carbon dioxide a year billow into the atmosphere from coal-fired power plants, according to the nonprofit Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. A recent report by the International Energy Agency estimated that the switch to natural gas resulted in a 7.7 cut in the country’s carbon dioxide emissions between 2006 and 2011. 


Yet the boom in natural gas is a complicated matter, too. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a method of improving the productivity of natural gas and oil wells, may pollute groundwater. Further, coal mining is managed under the Surfacing Mining and Reclamation Act, which requires companies to have a reclamation plan in place before they can break ground, but gas, oil, and wind do not have the same requirement because they’re considered minimal surface disturbance.


Still, reducing carbon emissions is a step forward. The most important thing, however, may be evaluating how we can inflict the least amount of harm to the surrounding environment as possible as we continue to generate the energy we need. 


Related stories:


Kicking the Coal Habit

American may be coming to grips with the dark side of our cheapest, most abundant energy source, but a plan to unload it on Asia threatens to poison our planet.


EPA Releases New Rules Limiting Power Plant Emissions

New rules are forcing power plants to clean up their acts. 


Smoke on the Water: Stopping a Coal-Fired Power Plant in Arkansas

Nationwide, coal-fired power plants appear to be on the way out. But in southwest Arkansas--next to some of the finest fish and wildlife habitat anywhere--one may be on the way in. 

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