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Major Coal Plant Closures Show How Coal Industry Is Dying Faster Than Expected

Several of the Largest Coal Plants in the United States to Close in 2019

Coal plant closings are increasing in the United States, but this year will see some of the country’s heaviest emitters of greenhouse gases shut down as alternative sources like renewables continue to drop in price relative to coal.
Major Coal Plant Closures Show How Coal Industry Is Dying Faster Than Expected
Navajo Generating Station, set to close in 2019 | Myrabella/Wikimedia Commons
Several of the largest coal-fired power plants in the United States are scheduled to shut down this year, representing some of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases, as the cost from building new power-generating facilities using renewables or natural gas continues to fall relative to coal.
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Coal-Fired Power Plant
Source: Pixabay

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As coal-fired power plants become increasingly unsustainable in the face of the growing savings from alternatives energy sources like solar and natural gas, plant operators have been quickly shutting down the smaller and most inefficient coal-burning plants in an effort to shift resources to larger, more profitable plants that contribute to the overwhelming bulk of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. Now, a new report in Scientific American reveals the extent to which even these larger plants are becoming loss-leaders for coal plant operators and are having to be shut down.

RELATED: REPORT FINDS COAL POWER INVESTMENT PLUMMETING 75% SINCE 2015

The Navajo Generating Station (NGS) in the state of Arizona is slated to cease operations by the end of 2019, making it one of the largest carbon-emitting generators in the country to ever be taken offline. Between 2010 and 2017, NGS pumped 135 million metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, with an average annual emission during those years equal to the total emissions produced by 3.3 million passenger vehicles in a year. According to Scientific American, “[o]f all the coal plants to be retired in the United States in recent years, none has emitted more” than NGS.

While NGS is the largest carbon-emitting coal-fired power plant slated to be shut down this year, other major coal-fired plants around the country are facing the same existential problem as NGS and are major emitters in their own right. Pennsylvania’s Bruce Mansfield coal plant, which produced 123 million tons of emissions between 2010 to 2017, is scheduled to be shut down for good by the end of the year.

Kentucky’s Paradise coal plant generated 102 million tons of emissions from 2010 to 2017, the year that the Tennessee Valley Authority began shutting down the plant by closing two of its three units. The remaining unit will be taken offline at the end of this year.

About a decade ago, the smaller, more inefficient coal-fired plants around the country started being taken offline as the growth in renewables, and the abundance of cheap natural gas began to increase the costs of operating these plants relative to switching to alternatives. Soon, it was becoming cheaper to build entirely new alternative energy generating facilities from scratch than continuing to operate these smaller coal plants. Unable to compete, they needed to be shut down so resources could be diverted to the larger coal-fired plants whose economies of scale allowed them to be still competitive.

Those economies of scale appear to be increasingly unable to save a growing number of larger coal plants that only a few years earlier were believed to be able to hold on, even if they wouldn’t dominate the energy production sector the way they had for a century.

“It’s just the economics keep moving in a direction that favors natural gas and renewables,” said Dan Bakal, the senior director of electric power at Ceres, which consults with companies looking to transition to cleaner and increasingly cheaper energy sources. “Five years ago, it was about the older coal plants becoming uneconomic. Now, it’s becoming about every coal unit, and it’s a question of how long they can survive.”

How Will Latest Round of Coal Plant Closures Cut Down US Carbon Emission Levels?

Climate Change Crisis
Source: NASA/GISS

The first coal-fired plants to be shut down were smaller and poorly-utilized plants that didn’t add significantly to US carbon emissions, so their shutdown did little to arrest the rise in US carbon emissions. The Scientific Americanreport reveals that in 2015, 15 GW of coal-generated capacity was shut down, cutting the total number of coal-fired plants in the US by 5%, a record number of closures for a single year.

The reduction in emissions wasn’t comparably large, however. Those plants accounted for 261 million tons of emissions over the six years preceding the closures with an annualized average emission of 43 million tons.

For comparison, total closures of 14 GW of coal-fired capacity represented 511 million tons of emissions over a comparable period, with an annualized average emission of 83 million tons. When counting all of the closures slated for 2019, which represents 8 GW of coal-fired capacity and so just about half the capacity lost in 2015, these plants produced 328 million tons of emissions between 2010 and 2015 for an annualized average emission of 55 million tons.

“You notice the average size of retired plants going up over time. There are not a lot of small plants left, period,” said John Larsen, head of power-sector analysis at the economic consulting company Rhodium Group. “Once you’ve cleared out all the old inefficient stuff, it’s logical the next wave would be bigger and have more implications for the climate.”

There are a lot of factors that can give a false sense of the trends in the industry, however. Take the emissions figures cited for the final years of plant operations before their closing. In the final years of their operation, they would have been operating at a reduced capacity as the plant progressively took itself offline, so those numbers can’t be taken as representative for those plants, historically, much less for the industry overall.

What’s more, the most heavily emitting plants in the US have no anticipated retirement dates. Because these plants are even larger than the ones being closed this year, they can burn coal and emit carbon pollutants all day and all night long, every day of the year because the economies of scale drive down the costs of burning coal in these plants as opposed to smaller less efficient ones.

But there are reasons to give credence to the data reported on in Scientific American. Other economic data point to the unsustainability of an increasing number of coal plant operators. Several major coal mine operators have declared bankruptcy in the last 12 months, even as President Donald Trump has made saving the coal industry a major priority for his administration.

The situation is becoming so desperate for the industry that memos from the US Energy Department were leakedto Bloomberg last year, revealing that the administration was considering direct intervention to force power utilities to purchase energy from coal-fired plants. The justification for such an unprecedented intervention into the private energy sector was the argument that national security required ‘always-on’ power capacity and that without coal and nuclear power, this capacity in the electrical grid could be threatened.

While that argument is highly debatable, what isn’t is that coal is increasingly approaching a total collapse of the coal industry, from mine operators to power generators. Research indicates that regions that depend on coal as their main if not only economic driver could face regional depressions in the years ahead. The collapse of coal will not be without consequences for a substantial number of people.

But just as it makes economic sense to simply build an entirely new renewable or natural gas generator than to continue to use an existing coal-fired plant, the costs of propping up coal plants that will never make money in the future with the compelled sale of coal-generated energy to utilities will be greater than it would cost to direct massive government and private investment into coal-reliant communities to build entirely new–and hopefully diverse–industries that can replace the coal jobs that are going to be lost.

For now, the largest coal plants may be operating on the assumption that they can weather the hurricane-force headwinds for the coal industry, but the NGS, Bruce Mansfield, and Paradise plants thought they could hold out too. Now they’re the inefficient dead weight in the industry that is getting cut. How long until no coal-fired plant in the country can sustain itself in competition with alternatives whose most innovative days lay ahead while coal’s glory days were decades ago?

With the climate crisis accelerating at the rate that it is and the economics in the energy industry trending further and faster away from coal than anyone imaged two decades ago, the only sane policy for the planet–and for the communities who rely on coal for their existence–is to take action now rather than bide for time that will never be given. By taking the industry out behind the barn and putting it out of its misery through public policy in an orderly way rather than wholesale and sudden collapse, we can then be empowered to invest resources into new industries to give the old coal communities the economic support they’ll need to make the transition. Any other policy at this point is simply madness.

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    In Hawaii: Clean Energy At 1 Cent Per Kilowatt-Hour

    From CleanTechnica.com by Scott Cooney, August 18th, 2019 

    The geothermal plant on the big island in Hawaii produces very inexpensive baseload renewable energy … but it still ain’t 1¢ per kilowatt hour. Photo courtesy of the Hawaii State Energy Office.

    We need clean energy, and we need it ASAP. There are barriers to getting it done, including permitting, price, land-use issues, energy-water nexus issues, lobbying efforts by the fossil industries and the puppets they install in our government, and more. Capital projects can take years to develop as a result of these obstacles. On any given project, one of these barriers may be the biggest impediment or no impediment at all … it’s very case by case in renewable energy development.

    Price is perhaps not the biggest challenge very often, as solar, wind, batteries, and even electric vehicles have all dropped enough in price that they can overcome polluting competitors in terms of cost per kilowatt-hour in most cases. But have you ever seen anything like 1 cent per kilowatt-hour?

    The answer, of course, is efficiency. The cheapest kilowatt-hour is the one you don’t use, after all. But what does that mean, exactly, that there’s a price on something that doesn’t exist?

    In Hawaii, we have a Public Benefit Fund (PBF), a small line-item surcharge placed on our electric bills. It might be a dime or a nickel on any given bill, but add it up across a state with more than a million residents and a whole lot of tourists on any given day, and the result is a pool of money big enough to do some serious good.

    Hawaii Energy, the ratepayer-funded efficiency and conservation program funded by the BPF, conducts everything energy efficiency, from rebates to direct install programs to education. Having a program like this with educated and motivated energy professionals has proven to be a tremendous step forward for Hawaii’s goals of 100% clean energy by 2045. Here’s a look at the challenge facing Hawaii, an island economy largely powered (currently) by fossils.

    Hawaii’s energy mix is largely fossil powered, making the change to clean energy imperative to save the state money, as those fuel sources inevitably get pricier. Photo courtesy of the Hawaii State Energy Office.

    Moving to 100% Clean Energy

    According to the Hawaii State Energy Office:

    “From July 1, 2017 to March 31, 2018, the program invested over $22 million to deliver more than 1.8 billion kWh in estimated lifetime customer-level energy savings at a rough cost of one cent per kWh. This is equivalent to building a 92 MW solar farm, enough to power 288,000 homes for a year. In addition, this will reduce greenhouse gas [pollution] by nearly 1.5 million tons.” (emphasis mine)

    The state is moving the needle on energy in a big way, and efficiency has a huge part to play in that. The primary beneficiaries are, of course, the people of Hawaii. 1.8 billion kWh at our regular electricity rates would cost us $612 million. Investing $22 million seems like a reasonably good idea, no?

    Through a combination of Energy Performance Contracts (EPC), direct install efficiency programs, education, and incentives for things like Energy Star refrigerators, Hawaii Energy has helped the residents of Hawaii drop their household energy consumption from an average of 584 kWh per month in 2011 to 482 kWh per month in 2017, roughly a 17.5% drop. This has contributed to a drop in the average residential electric bill from $202 in 2011 to $145 in 2017, a 28% drop, and amounting to a savings of about $700 per year per household.

    Saving residents that money means that less money leaves the state to make oil tycoons in Saudi Arabia richer, and more money can circulate (and re-circulate) inside the state’s economy, boosting overall quality of life and economic conditions.

    Hawaii spent $22 million to save $612 million for its residents. So … why isn’t every municipality doing this?

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      Scientists bid farewell to the first Icelandic glacier lost to climate change.

      Icelanders Mourn Loss of Okjökull Glacier With Ceremony, Plaque

      From Gizmodo, by Tom McKay, Aug 18, 2019 8:25pm
      The shrinking of the Okjökull glacier from Sept. 14, 1986 (left) to Aug. 1, 2019.
      The shrinking of the Okjökull glacier from Sept. 14, 1986 (left) to Aug. 1, 2019. Photo: NASA (AP)

      Politicians, scientists, and others gathered in Borgarfjörður, Iceland, northeast of Reykjavik on Sunday to mourn the loss of the Okjökull glacier, laying a plaque warning of the impact of climate change, the BBC reported.

      Okjökull, along with many other Icelandic glaciers, took serious hits from warming summers over the past two decades. It was officially declared inactive by glaciologist Oddur Sigurðsson in 2014, when he discovered that snow was melting before it could accumulate on the cap, and there was no longer enough pressure being built up to keep the glacier moving.

      Scientists Wrote a Eulogy for Iceland’s First Glacier Lost to Climate Change.  That may sound like an Onion headline, but alas, it is not. We’ve reached the point in our wild…  Read more

      At that point, the word jökull (meaning glacier or ice cap) was eliminated from its name, leaving the site formally designated by the name of the shield volcano it was located on, Ok.  According to Slate, Rice University anthropologists Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer were disturbed to see that the elimination of the glacier was almost entirely ignored in the English-language news media, filming a documentary titled Not Ok and later concluding the glacier’s demise should be commemorated.

      Attendees arriving for a ceremony at the former Okjökull glacier in Iceland on Aug. 18, 2019. Photo: Felipe Dana (AP)
      Attendees arriving for a ceremony at the former Okjökull glacier in Iceland on Aug. 18, 2019. Photo: Felipe Dana (AP)

      Attendees at the event included Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir, Environment Minister Gudmundur Ingi Gudbrandsson, and former Irish President Mary Robinson, according to the BBC. The plaque itself reads, in both English and Icelandic:

      Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as glacier. In the next 200 years, all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and know what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.

      August 2019

      415ppm CO2

      Author Andri Snaer Magnason, who wrote the words on the plaque, told the BBC, “This is a big symbolic moment. Climate change doesn’t have a beginning or end and I think the philosophy behind this plaque is to place this warning sign to remind ourselves that historical events are happening, and we should not normalise them. We should put our feet down and say, okay, this is gone, this is significant.”

      Calling Okjökull’s disappearance a “real loss,” Boyle told the BBC, “Plaques recognise things that humans have done, accomplishments, great events. The passing of a glacier is also a human accomplishment—if a very dubious one—in that it is anthropogenic climate change that drove this glacier to melt.”

      Glaciers are in bad shape worldwide, from North America and Europe to Greenland and Antarctica. A study in Nature this year estimated that glaciers lost over 10 trillion tons of ice between 1961 and 2016, which is enough volume to cover the entirety of 48 lower states in the U.S. in four feet of snow; another study published in The Cryosphere estimated the Alps will be stripped of 90 percent of its glaciers by the year 2100. According to the Associated Press, the lead author of the first study, World Glacier Monitoring Service at the University of Zurich director Michael Zemp, said that glaciers are disappearing at five times the rate they were in the 1960s. Zemp added that in central Europe, the Caucasus region, western Canada, and in the lower 48 states, “at the current glacier loss rate, the glaciers will not survive the century.”

      Just as troubling, some studies have found that coastal glaciers in Antarctica are melting much faster than expected, which could have dire consequences for sea level rise. Even if humans stopped emitting greenhouse gases on an industrial scale tomorrow, Victoria University of Wellington Antarctic Research Center climate scientist Nick Golledge told Earther, “The scary thing is it keeps melting. We’ve basically set in motion a series of changes which are gonna carry on playing out over the next few centuries at least, maybe thousands of years.”

      Sigurðsson told the BBC he has kept an inventory of Icelandic glaciers since 2000, finding that by 2017, 56 of the smaller ones had disappeared.

      “150 years ago no Icelander would have bothered the least to see all the glaciers disappear,” Sigurðsson told the news network, referring to the glaciers’ advancement over farmlands and flooding from meltwater. “But since then, while the glaciers were retreating, they are looked at as a beautiful thing, which they definitely are… The oldest Icelandic glaciers contain the entire history of the Icelandic nation. We need to retrieve that history before they disappear.”

      “We see the consequences of the climate crisis,” Prime Minister Jakobsdottir told the audience at the ceremony, according to Deutsche Welle. “We have no time to lose.”

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        And Now, the Really Big Coal Plants Begin to Close

        Old, small plants were the early retirees, but several of the biggest U.S. coal burners—and CO2 emitters-will be shuttered by year’s end

        Scientific American, by Benjamin Storrow, E&E News, 16 Aug 2019
        And Now, the Really Big Coal Plants Begin to Close
        The Navajo Generating Station, near Page, Ariz., is scheduled to close this year. It’s one of the largest greenhouse gas emitters in the U.S. power sector. Credit: David Wall Getty Images

        When the Navajo Generating Station in Arizona shuts down later this year, it will be one of the largest carbon emitters to ever close in American history.

        The giant coal plant on Arizona’s high desert emitted almost 135 million metric tons of carbon dioxide between 2010 and 2017, according to an E&E News review of federal figures.

        Its average annual emissions over that period are roughly equivalent to what 3.3 million passenger cars would pump into the atmosphere in a single year. Of all the coal plants to be retired in the United States in recent years, none has emitted more.

        The Navajo Generating Station isn’t alone. It’s among a new wave of super-polluters headed for the scrap heap. Bruce Mansfield, a massive coal plant in Pennsylvania, emitted nearly 123 million tons between 2010 and 2017. It, too, will be retired by year’s end (Energywire, Aug. 12).

        And in western Kentucky, the Paradise plant emitted some 102 million tons of carbon over that period. The Tennessee Valley Authority closed two of Paradise’s three units in 2017. It will close the last one next year (Greenwire, Feb. 14).

        “It’s just the economics keep moving in a direction that favors natural gas and renewables. Five years ago, it was about the older coal plants becoming uneconomic,” said Dan Bakal, senior director of electric power at Ceres, which works with businesses to transition to clean energy. “Now, it’s becoming about every coal unit, and it’s a question of how long they can survive.”

        Coal plant closures have been a feature of U.S. power markets for the better part of a decade, as stagnant demand, low natural gas prices and increasing competition from renewables have battered the coal fleet.

        In previous years, most retirements were made up of smaller and lesser-used units (Climatewire, April 27, 2017). That means the emissions reductions were less substantial.

        In 2015, the United States closed 15 gigawatts of coal capacity, or roughly 5% of the coal fleet. That still stands as a record amount of coal capacity retired in one year.

        Yet the emissions reductions were modest by today’s standards. The units retired in 2015 emitted a combined 261 million tons in the six years prior to their retirement, according to an E&E News review of EPA emissions data. On average, they annually emitted about 43 million tons over that period.

        Contrast that to 2018, when almost 14 GW of coal was retired. Those units emitted 511 million tons of carbon between 2010 and 2015. Their combined average annual emissions rate was 83 million tons.

        The trend figures to be even more dramatic this year.

        SMALL PLANTS ARE GONE

        The U.S. Energy Information Administration expects almost 8 GW of coal to retire in 2019, or a little more than half the capacity retired in 2015. Yet the units retired this year emitted more than their 2015 counterparts. Between 2010 and 2015, their combined emissions were 328 million tons, giving them an annual emissions average of 55 million tons.

        Other factors are also at play in the retirement of coal’s behemoths. In some cases, federal air quality regulations or an exodus of customers may have contributed to the closure, said John Larsen, who leads power-sector analysis at the Rhodium Group, an economic consulting firm.

        The Navajo Generating Station is a case in point. The plant had already planned to shut down a unit to comply with federal smog regulations. Two utilities with a stake in the facility had either divested from the plant or plan to do so. And the plant’s largest customer announced it could buy power on the wholesale market for less.

        “You notice the average size of retired plants going up over time. There are not a lot of small plants left, period,” Larsen said. “Once you’ve cleared out all the old inefficient stuff, it’s logical the next wave would be bigger and have more implications for the climate.”

        There are several caveats to consider. Units scheduled for retirement generally produce less in the years running up to their closure, meaning the plants that closed in 2015 once emitted more than they did near the end of their lives.

        There’s also this: The vast majority of super-polluters have no closure date in sight. That’s because massive coal plants generally benefit from large economies of scale. Because they crank out power around the clock, their cost of generating electricity is relatively cheap.

        “The coal plants remaining have generally installed all the environmental controls,” Larsen said. “There are no additional regulatory threats, or they are cost-effective in a world where gas is $2.50 per MMBtu.”

        Another caveat: Coal plant closures don’t guarantee power-sector emissions reductions on their own. In 2018, power-sector emissions increased for the first time in many years because electricity demand rose, prompting natural gas generation to spike (Climatewire, Jan. 14).

        But if there is a notable trend with the current round of plant closures, it is this: The large coal plants closing today are in places like Arizona, Pennsylvania and Kentucky.

        “You’re not seeing climate policy close these plants,” said Mike O’Boyle, director of electricity policy for Energy Innovation, a nonprofit that advocates for a transition to clean energy. “Coal plants are becoming more expensive to operate over time.”

        Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.
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