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Can We Realistically Retire Coal Plants and Still Have Enough Power to Meet Our Needs?

Ask a Scientist - May 2011

S. Young of Glastonbury, CT, asks “If the United States still generates almost 50 percent of its power from coal, can we realistically retire coal plants and still have enough power to meet our needs?” and is answered by Barbara Freese, Senior Policy Analyst for the Climate and Energy Program.

The shortest answer is yes, we can meet our country’s electricity needs while retiring coal plants. And replacing coal plants with cleaner sources of energy is not only critical for slowing global warming and saving lives, but it also makes financial sense for ratepayers.

Many of the nation’s coal plants are old, dirty, and ripe for retirement. Most plants are more than 30 years old—the operating lifetime for which coal plants were typically designed—and a third of the fleet is more than 40 years old. The oldest coal plants often still lack the basic pollution controls newer plants have used for decades, so they cause more than their share of coal’s many environmental impacts, including the thousands of deaths linked each year to coal plant air emissions.

Many old coal plants now face the prospect of new regulations requiring them to choose between finally installing pollution controls, repowering with cleaner fuels such as natural gas or biomass, or simply retiring. But even if they put the required controls on these old plants—controls which are costly but absolutely justified by the lives saved and other benefits—they would still be enormous sources of the carbon dioxide pollution destabilizing our climate. Coal plants are the nation’s single biggest source of carbon dioxide, emitting more than all our cars and trucks combined. And the technology needed to capture the carbon emissions from coal plants may not be economically viable for many years, if ever.

And even if the coal plants were retrofit with pollution controls, they would still face the financial risk that today’s rising coal prices could go much higher due to growing international demand or because the size of our recoverable coal reserves may be much smaller than commonly thought (see our recent report, A Risky Proposition: The Financial Hazards of New Investments in Coal Plants, for more on this issue).

As a result, retiring these coal plants will often make much more sense—both environmentally and economically—than retrofitting them. As it happens, this is a good time for a wave of coal plant retirements because we currently have more power-generating capacity than we need. This is partly due to state and federal policies that have succeeded in adding growing amounts of renewable power to the grid while shrinking demand through energy efficiency measures.

Another reason we have more power plants than we need is that the power sector built hundreds of new natural gas plants over the last decade, followed by a recession that reduced electric demand. Currently underutilized natural gas plants could be ramped up immediately to replace the power from existing coal plants. Natural gas plants are cleaner than coal plants by virtually every measure, including their climate impact. Gas plants also have a major advantage over coal plants in that they can ramp up and down quickly, and that flexibility makes it easier to integrate even more variable renewable sources like wind and solar onto the electric grid.

Growing reliance on natural gas comes with its own problems, to be sure. Natural gas prices are cheap now—and are predicted to stay low—largely because of expanded production of shale gas using a controversial drilling method called hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.”  The practice is only starting to get the regulatory attention needed to measure and reduce its environmental impacts, including water pollution and methane emissions. Meanwhile, maximizing our investments in renewable energy and efficiency can diversify our electricity mix and provide a hedge against future price volatily that could come from an overdependence on natural gas.

In the longer run, UCS has shown that we could replace almost all our coal plants over the next twenty years, mainly by increasing our use of renewable energy resources like wind and solar and by increasing energy efficiency. Our report, Climate 2030: A National Blueprint for a Clean Energy Economy, sets forth the clean energy policies that could reduce our coal use by about 85 percent by 2030, under a set of energy policies that would also reduce consumers’ total energy bills.

We’ve reached a critical fork in the road. We must decide if our country should invest lots of money in retrofitting old coal-fired power plants, or if we should replace them with much cleaner energy technologies. To me, the choice is clear. We can replace old, dirty coal plants with cleaner and ultimately cheaper alternatives while still meeting our country’s energy needs—and doing so would save lives, protect our health, and reduce the heat-trapping emissions that cause climate change.

Barbara Freese is a senior policy analyst/advocate for the UCS Climate and Energy program.  Her work involves highlighting the financial and environmental risks of coal power, promoting state and federal policies to reduce coal dependence, and advocating for regulatory decisions that steer utilities toward cleaner energy options.  She has a law degree from NYU and is a former assistant attorney general for Minnesota where she spent several years implementing the Clean Air Act.

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