Dirty Departed

Dear coal industry, stop reminiscing over outdated power plants. They’re holding you—and us—back.

Photo: Nick Papakyriazis

Utah’s oldest coal-fired power plant closed last week. It was a “somber day,” said Rocky Mountain Power spokesman Dave Eskelsen when his company shut down the aptly named Carbon Power Plant. One can only imagine the scene—officials padlocking the front doors as the grateful townsfolk slow-clap the old girl into retirement.

I’m exaggerating, but only slightly. Some people in the coal industry view the shuttering of a sexagenarian power plant as a tragedy. The Institute for Energy Research, for example, regularly blames the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for hastening the closure of dozens of coal-fired plants.

Before your eyes start to well up, think about what we’re mourning here. These plants are ancient. Dozens of coal-fired power plants still in operation in the United States were built between the 1920s and '40s. The average American plant is 42 years old. Old-timers might view this as a virtue—a triumph of the World War II–era “use it up, wear it out” philosophy—but in fact we ought to decommission these bituminous dinosaurs as fast as we possibly can.

Modern coal-burning plants are far from perfect, but they are vast improvements over the ones the EPA is putting out to pasture. Before passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970, power plants belched tremendous amounts of sulphur, particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, mercury, and other hazardous chemicals. When the environmental rules came into effect, utilities slowly added filter houses, scrubbers, and chemical reducers to the plants to bring them into compliance. As emissions standards become stronger, however, many just can’t keep up.

With every new round of regulation, a few more power plants are rendered beyond saving. In some cases their closing is a question of economics: If a plant is already reaching the end of its useful life, no sensible utility is going to spend millions upgrading its emissions-control equipment. Some plants are almost impossible to upgrade. The Carbon plant in Utah, for example, was built into a canyon. There simply wasn’t room for any more emissions-control technology. Apparently 1950s engineers didn’t anticipate the need for improvements to their creation.

New plants are also more efficient. Coal-fired power plants are simple: They burn coal to boil water, using the steam to turn a turbine. The hotter the steam, the more electricity the plant can generate from a ton of coal. Plants built in the 1950s can heat steam to only 1,005 degrees Fahrenheit. New plants reach 1,300 degrees, because modern construction can handle it. That simple change allows new plants to generate the same amount of electricity with 30 percent to 40 percent less coal.

Inertia and history, not engineering excellence, are the reasons some aging plants have hung around so long. First, utilities used to build power plants right next to coal mines, so some of the oldest plants can have an advantage over newer models. The farther a plant gets from the mine, the more it has to spend on transportation. In addition, many older plants supply electricity to small towns with stagnant power demands, giving little incentive for utilities to invest in a newer model. Plus, how the bill should be split between utilities and utility commissions, which decide whether utilities can pass costs on to customers, is no longer clear.

“In the '60s and '70s, utility commissions shared the costs of research and development because they recognized the improvements in efficiency and reliability,” says Jim Woods, director of the U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center at West Virginia University and former deputy assistant secretary for clean coal at the U.S. Department of Energy. “It was a partnership that worked.” That partnership has since broken down, with utility commissions reluctant to dedicate consumer dollars to technological improvements.

Coal must either reduce its carbon footprint or die off as an energy source. Although the industry loves to complain about the EPA, the agency is its strongest ally in this movement—the primary force constantly pushing for improvements. Consider the Mountaineer project, which American Electric Power proposed to build in West Virginia. It was supposed to feature carbon capture and sequestration—a technology to prevent greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere—moving coal into the future and making it competitive with natural gas in the era of climate change. But it didn’t happen. As costs for the plants rose unexpectedly, the state utility commission refused to raise rates and AEP canceled the project.

It makes no sense to rue the demise of Mountaineer while also complaining about the EPA. The coal industry has proven that it won’t improve unless forced to do so. The EPA’s proposed carbon pollution standards will give the industry an incentive to refine carbon capture technology, the same way EPA’s other emissions regulations have forced the closure of outdated and dirty coal-fired plants. Perhaps if the carbon pollution standards weren’t tied up in the courts, they would have pushed the Mountaineer project through and helped kill off a few more outdated coal plants.

When advancing computer-chip technology rendered my last laptop obsolete, I sent it to the recycler with nary a tear. When my old toaster oven refused to operate without a wad of tin foil propping the door slightly open, I tossed the useless hunk of metal. I didn’t hold a ceremony. There was no somberness. I was delighted—newer, faster, more efficient technology is great. Power plants are no exception.

So goodbye, Carbon Power Plant. And good riddance.


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