Cherniak: Retiring coal one kilowatt-hour at a time
Park Record contributor
Beginning in 1960 and continuing until 2015, coal was the primary means of producing electricity within the continental U.S. Approximately 50 percent of our electricity was generated by coal-fired power plants. But according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, that percentage began to decline starting around 2006 and as of the end of 2018, only 30 percent of our electricity was generated by coal. This is an astonishing drop, due to many factors, and one that, despite Washington’s best efforts, is expected to continue.
Some cite government policies and regulations as the primary cause for this decline. Others point to the free market, as natural gas, solar and wind have become increasingly competitive and cleaner alternatives. A third reason is the increasing number of energy-efficient products and appliances on store shelves. Finally, there is the effort each of us is making to change our behavior and simply reduce the amount of electricity we consume.
In fact, the demand for electricity has generally leveled off over the past 10 years, even as our economy continues to grow. And with decreasing demand comes a retiring of supply, particularly old and aging coal-fired plants. According to the EIA, there were 580 coal-fired power plants across the U.S. in 2010. As of March 2018, the number of plants had fallen below 350.
And they continue to shutter. Last month, Montana-Dakota Utilities announced the closing of three separate coal-fired units, saying that low-cost natural gas and increasing power from wind make more financial sense than continuing to run the nearly 50-year-old units, whose maintenance costs continue to rise. Just three weeks ago, Alabama Power Company announced that it plans to shut down a huge 1,000 megawatt (MW) coal-fired power plant in the central part of the state in April. The company said it would cost about $300 million to comply with environmental requirements at the nearly 100-year-old facility. With this closure, Alabama Power will reduce the number of coal-fired units it operates from a peak of 23 to seven.
Another company, Duke Energy Corporation, has retired 47 units since 2011 (S&P Global; spglobal.com). The Tennessee Valley Authority, meanwhile last month voted to close a 970 MW power plant in Kentucky due to the cost associated with retrofitting and upgrading the 50-year-old plant.
Plant age is becoming a significant factor as most of the country’s coal plants were built in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. Currently, 15 percent of the plants in operation are at least 55 years old, and the operating life for a typical coal plant is about 40 years, according to the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.
Finally, PacifiCorp, the parent company of Rocky Mountain Power, indicated it remains on schedule to retire four coal-fired plants within the next 10 years and some 3,650 megawatts of coal-based power by the end of 2036.
Let’s be clear — fossil fuels still dominate electricity generation within the country, led now by natural gas. No doubt, natural gas has plenty of environmental issues (e.g. carbon dioxide generation, methane leaks during transmission, etc.). But according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, those utilities that are swapping out coal furnaces for natural gas burners have lowered the stack-based emissions of numerous pollutants, including particulate matter, nitrogen and sulfur-based compounds and metals such as mercury, lead, cadmium and arsenic.
What’s more, with each plant that is retired, the generation of coal ash abruptly ends. This should not go under-appreciated, as a recent study performed by the Environmental Integrity Project documented that 90 percent of the impoundments used to store coal ash showed unsafe levels of heavy metals leaching into the groundwater beneath.
At present, the White House is actively supporting and promoting the coal industry while challenging and rescinding the previous administration’s environmental policies and regulations associated with electricity generation. This political yo-yoing introduces uncertainty into the free market’s interest and incentives to develop alternative and cleaner forms of electric power and storage. As a result, the rate at which coal-fired units are being retired or transitioned to natural gas is in jeopardy of slowing.
There is one thing we on the demand-side of the equation can do, and that is to better manage our behavior and actions towards the consumption of electricity. Turning off our rooftop heat tape when there is no snow on it, or managing our electricity use inside our homes, businesses and schools, can result in a few kilowatts of savings here and there. “Meh” you might reply. But if of us practice this behavior, that’s thousands of kilowatt-hours and thousands of pounds of coal not consumed (per the EPA, it takes one pound of coal to produce one kilowatt-hour of electricity). If the idea of “saving a kilowatt here and there” seems pointless and pollyanish, then call me just that. But you want to know what else people called pointless and pollyanish? Thinking back in 2006 that we could reduce coal-generated electricity from 50 percent to 30 percent in just 12 years. Few thought it was possible or worth the effort.
Moving coal’s share from 30 percent down below 20 percent (coal’s “Mendoza Line”) will take even more effort. Washington and Wall Street will primarily focus on the supply side of the issue, but we are in control of the demand. And from this point forward, every kilowatt-hour we don’t demand will make a difference when it comes to protecting the environment and our children’s health and welfare.
Chris Cherniak is a professional civil/environmental engineer who has worked as an environmental consultant since 1985.
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