Decisions loom on aging U.S. coal plant fleet
- The average U.S. coal plant is 42 years old but the oldest were built in the 1940s and early 1950s, are the least efficient in the fleet, and don’t have adequate pollution or air quality controls to meet present operational requirements.
- Exemplary of the status of old U.S. coal facilities are the last two units of the American Electric Power-owned Glen Lyn which, used only for peak demand periods since 2010, will be closed by mid-2015 because the exemption of pre-1970 plants from the EPA mercury and air toxics standards will expire and the investment needed to retrofit the units to meet the standards would not be cost-effective.
- Even utilities such as number one U.S. CO2 emitter AEP that own aging but fully paid for coal plants may approve closures because it would take that cheap power off the market and make the nuclear fleet, also threatened by low renewable and natural gas prices and representing much greater stranded costs, more economically viable.
The 10 oldest U.S. coal plants were built between 1943 and 1949 and all but a very small one in Alaska are expected to close well before 2020, including the AEP-owned Glen Lyn built in 1944. Anticipated closures of plants like Glen Lyn are expected to make hitting new EPA emissions reduction standards easier for many states.
A ‘cash-for-clunkers’ program advocated by environmentalists and T. Boone Pickens, Ted Turner and NRG Energy CEO David Crane would see the federal government buy back and close the worst emitters on the theory that it would get an eighth of the U.S. coal fleet shuttered.
Despite coal-state politicians’ denunciations, attorney Bruce Nilles, a leader in the Sierra Club anti-coal campaign, sees the new EPA emissions regulations as an opportunity for the coal industry to close much of its aging and uneconomic coal fleet over the next 15 years.
The 20 megawatt Fort Wainwright Central Heat and Power Plant in Alaska, opened in 1945, is the third-oldest U.S. coal plant but is not scheduled for closure, though environmentalists say it compromises Fairbanks air quality, because Doyon Utilities, which bought it from the Army, has committed to pollution control upgrades.