The Case for Closing America's Costliest Coal Plants
by Angela Garrone
Today the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released the report Ripe for Retirement: The Case for Closing America’s Costliest Coal Plants, which highlights the financial uncertainty of many coal plants around the nation. It turns out that the Southeast is home to a staggering number of inefficient and uneconomic coal plants.
As of May 31, a total of 288 coal-fired generating units representing 41.2 gigawatts (GW) of capacity across the U.S. have been scheduled for closure. Many of the owners of these on-the-way-out coal-fired units based their decision to close up shop on economic grounds. Now that there are many cleaner, lower-cost alternatives for electric generation, coal plant owners are concluding that paying for costly upgrades to keep their outdated coal plants running is a bad investment.
UCS’ new report bolsters these ideas as they have identified up to 353 coal-fired electric utility generating units, many with multiple generating units and 121 of these in the Southeast, that are ripe for retirement, meaning that economically speaking they are uncompetitive compared with cleaner, more affordable sources of energy.
UCS’ report stresses the point that these ripe-for-retirement generators (or units) can be closed on top of the already announced 288 retiring generators without jeopardizing the reliability of America’s electricity system. The U.S. is projected to have 145 GW of excess capacity by 2014, in addition to reserve margins required to maintain reliability at the regional power grid level. Since burning coal for electricity is one of the leading sources of toxic air pollution including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, soot, mercury and carbon dioxide, retiring the units identified in UCS’ report would be a huge step toward cleaning up our region’s air and water resources.
Southeastern utilities are spotlighted in the report as those with the highest number of coal-fired units that are ripe for retirement. Southern Company, which operates in Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Mississippi, has by far the most generation capacity deemed ripe for retirement—15.6 GW—but has announced less than 1.4 GW of plant closures. Duke Energy, which operates plants in North Carolina, has a total of 17 generating units, representing 2,760 MW of capacity, identified as ripe for retirement.
So how do the Southeast states’ coal-fired units fair in UCS’ assessment? Let’s take a closer look. Ripe for Retirement ranks the states and utilities with the most coal-fired power capacity that should be considered for closure. (Note: Megawatt/MW is a unit of energy measurement, while Megawatt hour/MWh is a unit of measurement of the volume of energy used over the set time period. For example, 50 MW over a 24hr period would mean 1200MWh.)
#1 Georgia with 22 units at 7 plants representing 34.7 million MWhs of generation.
#2 Alabama with 24 units at 7 plants representing 23.4 million MWhs of generation.
#3 Tennessee with 22 units at 3 plants representing 9.6 million MWhs of generation.
#4 Florida with 11 units at 7 plants representing 15.6 million MWhs of generation.
#6 South Carolina with 11 units at 6 plants representing 11.2 million MWhs of generation.
#9 Mississippi with 8 units at 4 plants representing 9.7 million MWhs of generation.
#12 North Carolina with 13 units at 7 plants representing 7.4 million MWhs of generation.
#17 Kentucky with 10 units 5 plants representing 4.8 million MWhs of generation.
How did UCS arrive at such a large number of ripe-for-retirement coal plants in the Southeast? UCS compared the cost of electricity from individual coal-fired electricity generating units with the cost of alternative forms of electricity generation, including natural gas and wind generation. If a coal-fired generator after installing any needed pollution controls would be more expensive than these alternative forms of energy, then that coal generator is considered ripe for retirement.
The report authors actually carried out several varied economic comparisons, ultimately arriving at a low estimate and a high estimate of the number of coal units that are ripe for retirement. The low estimate was arrived at by comparing the operating costs of a coal generator upgraded with modern pollution controls to operating costs of a new natural gas combined cycle plant whose capital costs were not yet recovered. The high estimate came from the comparison of the same type of coal generator to the operating costs of an existing natural gas combined cycle plant whose capital costs were already largely recovered. The report also analyzed several alternative scenarios that could influence the economic competitiveness of America’s remaining operational coal fleet, including implementation of a price on carbon dioxide emissions and the availability of federal tax credits for wind power.
Any way you look at it, there are a significant number of coal units that need to pull the plug on their operations here in the Southeast: 121 with the high estimate and 47 by the low estimate.
The alternative analysis included in the report looked at how the economics of continued operation of coal-fired generating units stood up under several scenarios: low and high prices for natural gas, placing a price on carbon dioxide and wind powered generation with and without an extension of the federal tax credit. The report finds that low natural gas prices and a price on carbon dioxide have the greatest impact in expanding the pool of coal-fired generators deemed ripe for retirement.
For a more complete picture of all of the analyses and variables considered by the UCS team, check out the full text of the report. The report clearly gives us an important snapshot of the economic state of play as utilities actively make decisions on whether or not to extend the lives of their already woefully outdated coal-fired power plants. Ratepayers should be empowered by the information provided in this report to push their electricity service providers to conduct thorough and transparent least-cost planning and alternatives analysis in order to make informed decisions when it comes to the future of their energy portfolio—not just so that we can clean up our air and water—but also to make sure we, as a nation, are not wasting our money in these tight economic times.
Visit EcoWatch’s COAL page for more related news on this topic.
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It's going to be back-to-school time soon, but will children go into the classrooms?
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) thinks so, but only as long as safety measures are in place.
Keeping Schools Safe<p>What will safer schools look like?</p><p>In a <a href="https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2766822" target="_blank">JAMA article</a> published last month, <a href="https://www.jhsph.edu/faculty/directory/profile/1781/joshua-m-sharfstein" target="_blank">Dr. Joshua Sharfstein</a>, a pediatrician and professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, outlined suggestions — many of which are similar to AAP's.</p><p>Remote learning protocols must stay in place, especially as some schools stagger home and in-building learning. If another shutdown needs to occur, children will rely on distance learning completely, so it must be easy to switch to, he said.</p><p>He suggested giving parents a daily checklist to document their child's health. Kids should be screened quickly on arrival and be given hygiene supplies. Maintenance staff should use appropriate PPE and have regular cleaning schedules. A notification system should be in place if a case is identified, Sharfstein recommended.</p><p><a href="https://www.albany.edu/rockefeller/faculty/erika-martin" target="_blank">Erika Martin</a>, PhD, an associate professor of public administration and policy at University at Albany, said nutrition assistance and health services should be included. She called for tutoring programs with virtual options as well as technology access.</p>
Supporting Staff<p>Teachers and staff will be affected by safeguarding measures, noted <a href="https://directory.sph.umn.edu/bio/sph-a-z/rachel-widome" target="_blank">Rachel Widome</a>, PhD, an associate professor of epidemiology and community health at University of Minnesota.</p><p>"In order for all of the in-school precautions to work well, we'll be asking a lot of teachers and staff," Widome told Healthline. In addition to their usual workload, they'll now be asked to monitor mask-wearing, ensure children are keeping distance, and be aware of any symptoms.</p><p>Along with Sharfstein, Widome called for an increase in financial support. More employees will likely be required so teachers and staff members can keep up with the added demands.</p>
Should Kids Go Back?<p>While these guidelines may help get some schools to reopen, many people don't think children should go back to school over fears they could contract the disease and spread it to other vulnerable family members like grandparents, infant siblings, or their parents.</p><p>In a <a href="https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2020/07/08/peds.2020-004879" target="_blank">Pediatrics</a> commentary, <a href="https://www.md.com/doctor/william-raszka-md" target="_blank">Dr. William V. Raszka, Jr.</a>, an infectious disease specialist at The University of Vermont Medical Center, argued that schools should open because school-aged children are far less important drivers of COVID-19 than adults.</p><p>But he says the risk and benefit is not equal among all students ages 5 to 18.</p><p>"Elementary schools are arguably higher priority for face-to-face schooling, since younger children are at lower risk for infection and transmission, and since parental supervision of younger children's distance learning may be particularly challenging," added Sorensen, who penned a <a href="https://jamanetwork.com/channels/health-forum/fullarticle/2767411" target="_blank">June article in JAMA</a> with reopening tips. "That means middle and high schools are more likely to emphasize distance learning."</p><p>Specific student populations, such as special education students and students with disabilities, would also benefit greatly from more time spent in face-to-face environments, Sorensen said.</p>
What Parents Can Do<p>Parents should ask for and receive frequent updates from schools about plans for the fall. They should also be informed about plans if and when COVID infections are identified, Sharfstein said.</p><p>"I'd like to see parents investing now, during the summer, in doing things that can slow and stop the spread of the virus in their communities," Widome said.</p><p>"Now is a good time for kids to practice wearing masks and get used to them as they may be wearing them for longer stretches if school starts up in person," Widome suggested.</p><p>She recommends parents try different mask designs and materials to see what children are more comfortable wearing.</p><p>"If you are using cloth face coverings, it's good to have extras on hand," Widome added.</p><p>Parents should model healthy behavior at home and while out in public — another thing that could affect how well children adapt to reopening practices, Sorensen said.</p><p>"Children may want to know more about face coverings," added <a href="https://www.linkedin.com/in/leescott/" target="_blank">Lee Scott</a>, chairwoman of the Educational Advisory Board at <a href="https://www.goddardschool.com/" target="_blank">The Goddard School</a>. "Dramatic play, such as creating or wearing a face covering, may help some children adjust to this concept." Schools can also show children photos of what faculty members look like in their masks so the students are familiar with that appearance.</p><p>Johns Hopkins University recently released its eSchool+ Initiative, a slew of resources surrounding education during the pandemic. These include a <a href="https://equityschoolplus.jhu.edu/reopening-checklist/" target="_blank">checklist for administrators</a>, report on <a href="https://equityschoolplus.jhu.edu/ethics-of-reopening/" target="_blank">ethical considerations</a>, and a tracker of <a href="https://equityschoolplus.jhu.edu/reopening-policy-tracker/" target="_blank">state and local reopening plans</a>.</p>
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