Closing The Door On Building New Coal-Fired Power Plants In America

excel energy power plant photo

Xcel Energy fires up new natural gas-fired High Bridge plant near St. Paul, replacing older coal-fired unit.
Image credit:Minnesota Public Radio

Recently Jonathan G. Dorn, my colleague at Earth Policy Institute, released a report on how community opposition, legal challenges, and financial uncertainty over future carbon costs are prompting companies to rethink their plans for coal.He writes, "Since the beginning of 2007, 95 proposed coal-fired power plants have been canceled or postponed in the United States--59 in 2007, 24 in 2008, and at least 12 in the first three months of 2009. This covers nearly half of the 200 or so U.S. coal-fired power plants that have been proposed for construction since 2000. The vast majority of the remaining proposals are essentially on hold, awaiting word on whether the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is going to impose limits on carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. With further legal challenges ahead and the regulation of CO2 imminent, 2009 may very well witness the end of new coal-fired power plants in the United States." (See time line and data.)

He noted that Congress is under increasing pressure from grassroots activists to take on Big Coal. An example is the recent protest on March 2, 2009 in Washington, DC, by thousands of individuals against the coal-burning Capitol Power Plant. The rally was the largest act yet of civil disobedience against coal in the United States.

Evidence of political and legal turn-about.
Members of Congress and state governments are also stepping up opposition. Jonathan writes, "Both Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi are pressing to get a climate bill through Congress before the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December. If limits on CO2 emissions are imposed via a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system, the operating cost of fossil-fuel based power plants would increase. And since the burning of coal releases more CO2 per unit of energy than any other energy source, coal-fired power plants would be hit the hardest."

Since May 2007, the governors of Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, South Carolina, Washington, and Wisconsin have all taken action or voiced opposition to new coal-fired power plants. Jonathan notes that Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm has called for an evaluation of "all feasible and prudent alternatives before approving new coal-fired power plants" in Michigan. This placed at least five proposed coal plants on hold.

Important are some of the court decisions. Jonathan notes that in June 2008, Georgia Superior Court Judge Thelma Moore, in accordance with the Massachusetts v. EPA ruling, rescinded an air pollution permit issued by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources for the proposed 1,200-megawatt Longleaf coal-fired power plant. This action halted construction on the plant and marked the first time that CO2 had been cited as a factor in denying an air pollution permit.

More recently, Georgia legislators introduced House Bill 276 calling for an immediate moratorium on the construction of new coal-fired power plants in the sate and the phase-out by mid-2016 of the burning of any coal extracted by mountaintop removal.

Jonathan writes that power companies and utilities are responding these legal challenges and public opposition "by backing away from coal and turning to clean, renewable sources of energy, such as wind, solar, and geothermal. Dynegy Inc., a wholesale power provider serving 13 states, announced in January 2009 that it will no longer continue its joint venture with LS Power Associates, L.P., to build up to seven new coal-fired power plants. On the day that Dynegy made the announcement, its stock price rose 19 percent. Several weeks later, Arizona's largest electric utility, Arizona Public Service Co., submitted a Resource Plan to the Arizona Corporation Commission indicating that it will not build any new coal-fired power plants because the carbon risk is too high. In late February, Oklahoma Gas & Electric released a plan to turn to renewable energy and defer building any fossil-fired power plants until at least 2020.

These and other events, as Jonathan writes, "illustrate that the door is closing on the prospect of building new coal-fired power plants in the United States." But this is only the beginning. As he says, "To have a decent chance of mitigating the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change, our attention should now turn to phasing out all coal-fired electricity generation over the next decade."

I encourage everyone to read the full report.

For more information see Chapters 11 and 12 in Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008), available for free downloading.

More posts on backing away from coal.

Australia Stepping Back From The Coal-Fired Edge
U.S. Moving Toward Ban On New Coal-Fired Power Plants
More than 50 Proposed Coal-Fired Power Plants are Now on the Back ...

Closing The Door On Building New Coal-Fired Power Plants In America
Recently Jonathan G. Dorn, my colleague at Earth Policy Institute, released a report on how community

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