Study Claim: Up To 20% Of US Coal-Fired Generating Capacity May Be "Retired" Over Coming Decade

Boardman 550 megawatt, coal-fired power plant at Carty Reservoir, Oregon USA. Constructed in 1977, the Boardman plant is slated to be closed down by 2020 (43 year operating life). Image credit: Wikipedia

A recently published study by the Brattle Group makes the claim that USEPA promulgated final regulations for controlling air emissions of SO2, NOx, particulates, and mercury, plus requirements for better control of thermal pollution, may force closure of numerous coal-fired electricity generating plants across the USA. This high closure impact projection presumes that installing and operating the added pollution controls would be so expensive - in part because of age but also because of design - that generating electricity from cleaner technologies would be a better investment choice. (See explanations and caveats below.)

Note: the referenced EPA regulations were not written with the intention of controlling CO2 emissions, per se, although closing enough coal fired plants to shutter 15% - 20% of US generating capacity, as the study speculates might occur, obviously would eliminate a great deal of carbon dioxide emissions, at least temporarily and maybe permanently (depending on what generating sources replace the shuttered capacity).

No doubt several Washington lobbyists, think tank "experts," pundits, GOP presidential candidates, and sundry cracked teapots will reference the Brattle Group consulting study to support imaginary claims that EPA 'wants to bypass the Constitution, eliminate jobs, and blah blah. Socialist plot blah blah..'

No matter that the cited regs have been in development or were finalized long before the Supreme Court issued it's endangerment finding on climate forcing gases.

What has changed is that the current Administrator of USEPA has the courage to implement the Clean Air Act as enacted and amended by Congress over a 40 year period.

From the study:

Celebi and Graves estimate that 40,000 to 55,000 MW of coal capacity (depending on the cost of retrofits) would retire if scrubbers and selective catalytic reduction (SCR) equipment were to be mandated by 2015 for all coal units. Another 11,000 to 12,000 MW could retire if cooling towers are also mandated. This would bring the total retirements to between 50,000 to 67,000 MW, or roughly 20 percent of installed coal plant capacity. Most of the retirements would be merchant plants (47,000 to 56,000 MW, or up to three-quarters of the entire merchant coal fleet), with significantly fewer retirements of regulated coal-fired plants. The retirements would be especially large in the Midwest ISO, ERCOT, and PJM areas, representing up to 72 percent of all coal plants and up to 15 percent of total installed generating capacity.

The study takes the point of view that even relatively modern plants will be affected. Other studies take a different view. Anyhow, age of plant is apparently at the nexus of what impacts are projected:
"In contrast to other studies projecting that mostly old and small coal units are at risk for retirement, our analysis finds that roughly one-third of the retirements will be from power plants that are less than 40 years old and larger than 500 MW, resulting in significant challenges for the coal industry as a whole if the EPA regulations pass as expected," Dr. Celebi said today during an EUCI webinar on "Potential Coal Plant Retirements Under Emerging Environmental Regulations."

Larger point.
Recently I've seen several environmental regulatory "studies" being discussed on invitation-only "webinars." Are webinars the latest lobby and spin tactic; another way to spread objective data and points of view; or, both? Guess it depends on who participates and who does not - political staffers of one or the other persuasion, for example - and how the findings are ultimately referenced in Congressional hearings.

This will not much impact the price of coal. China is burning everything we can ship to them.

The price of pollution control equipment can change and so can the cost-effectiveness of various renewable energy technologies. Hence, readers should not assume that impact studies such as the one discussed here have a high level of precision.