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This is the first of a three-part series on the fate of coal-fired power in the US.  An unprecedented number of coal-fired power plants in the US will be shut down in the next few years, replaced by natural gas, solar and wind. The first article is about what happens to these plants as they retire. The second will discuss the long-term future of coal plants, and the third will discuss the always-moving definition of “clean coal”.

Pearl Street Power Station

Pearl Street Station in New York, 1882. Source: Smithsonian

The first power plant in the US was the Pearl Street Station in Manhattan, built by Thomas Edison in 1882.  Over the next 131 years, coal plants in the US increased in size and efficiency. The most recent coal plants commissioned (operating) in the US are the Duke Energy Edwardsport Plant in Indiana and the Sandy Creek Plant in Waco, Texas. Both began operating in 2013, although the status of the Sandy Creek plant is unclear after some startup difficulties and legal disputes.  A proposed plant in Georgia has not begun construction.

With the announcement by the Obama administration of restrictions on  greenhouse gas  emissions from new and existing power plants, I think it is likely that the era of coal-fired power may be coming to an end sooner than expected, and it is likely that we will never see another coal-fired power plant constructed in the US.  But what happens to existing coal-fired power stations as the new regulations come in to effect?

Pineville Generating Station

Pineville Generating Station, built in 1924, retired in 2001

Coal stations  (coal-fired power plants) in Kentucky provide a case study of the present status and future of coal stations. Kentucky is a coal-producing state that depends on electricity from coal more than most states.  There are 21 operating coal stations, with a total of 52 units (most stations have more than one boiler-generator unit).  These stations have a combined capacity of 16 GW, and produce 93% of Kentucky’s electricity (US Energy Information Administration).

Power plant

Canal Station, a retired coal plant in Louisville, KY

What happens to these stations as they get old or fail to meet new regulations?  Plant closings have been going on for a long time. Although coal stations have been retrofitted to meet air quality regulations, it is often not economical to do so.  The Kentucky Utilities Pineville Station was built in 1924 as the first utility-scale power plant in the state. It was retired in 2001 because the cost of meeting air quality standards was prohibitive.  The LG&E Canal Street Station was also closed (date uncertain) because retrofitting proved too expensive.

Cane Run Generating Station. The coal-fired units will be retired in 2015 when gas generating capacity on the same site comes online.

Cane Run Generating Station. The coal-fired units will be retired in 2015 when gas generating capacity on the same site comes online.

The LG&E Cane Run Station is a 3-unit coal fired plant in Louisville that began operations in 1954. The station was in a rural area when built, but Louisville has grown up around it.  As a result, there have been numerous complaints and legal actions over coal ash dust and other environmental issues near the plant. In 2010, LG&E announce plans to build a gas-fired plant on the same site and shut down the coal units. The conversion is under way, and the gas units are expected to begin operating in 2015. At the same time, the utility is retiring two other power plants, Tyrone and Green River,  with no plans to add natural gas capacity.

What happens when these plants shut down is interesting:  nothing happens.  As far as I know, utilities in Kentucky still own every plant they have ever developed. The plants are mothballed, but not abandoned.  There are at least two reasons for this:

  • Although the plants do not represent any immediate hazard, redevelopment of the sites would be difficult. Decades of accumulation of coal ash, oil and other industrial materials would make brownfields development prohibitively expensive.
  • Each of the retired plants has substantial electricity transmission facilities. These were originally built for the plants, but now represent important interconnections between various transmission lines.  This includes the very important interconnections to PJM, the major regional transmission company that distributes reliable energy throughout the Northeast.

If, as appears likely, the majority of coal-fired power plants in the region shut down or convert to natural gas or other fuel sources, the Ohio River Valley will be dotted with unused and unusable power plants.  In the absence of any economical way to reuse the sites, these will become economic albatrosses on utilities that have a shrinking market for fossil-fuel energy.

EW Brown Generating Station

EW Brown Generating Station, Harrodsburg, KY has coal, hydroelectric and gas units in a single plant

Disclaimer: I have done consulting work in the energy sector for a number of years, most of which is confidential.  All of the information in these articles is publicly available.

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4 Responses

  1. hikesocal says:

    Excellent article.

    What stands out to me is the very real jobs that are lost due to coal plant shutdowns. I'm all for shutting them down, and hope the author's comment about another one never being built holds true, but I don't like seeing workers suffer.

    I'm completely clueless about this but is the notion of converting them to clean energy facilities completely out of the question? It just seems that if there were some incentives available for wind, solar and natural gas companies to use these facilities and hire local workers, it would eliminate the main argument from those seeking to maintain the status quo.

  2. danceco says:

    Enlightening article. I never understood using coal as a source of power production because it is so destructive to our environment in more ways than one. Entire mountain and hills reduced to nothing because we chose the cheapest and fastest option for energy production. I find it very comforting that our power production is optimistically heading toward natural, solar and wind sources.

  3. Luiz Felippe says:

    Dear Tom,

    My congratulations for this article. Do you have any statistical related to oldest coal-fired power plants?

    I am discussing with my colleagues about the justificative for investing in older units and I would appreciate if you send me something about that. Kind regards.

    Luiz Felippe
    Maintenance Engineering Manager.

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