Projected Closing of Coal Plants Under New EPA Regulations

By Editors

ICF, a consulting firm that has modeled the effect of EPA regulations on existing coal plants, has mapped where most of the impact will occur. Overall, ICF estimates that by 2020 about 40 gigawatts of power – the equivalent of 40 of the largest coal plants – will have to shut down. That represents 12 percent of current coal capacity.

The map indicates where these closings are likely to be. The dark blue indicates more than 15 percent of current capacity will have to be shuttered. The medium blue is between 10 and 15 percent. The light blue represents 5 to 10 percent and the very pale gray means less than 5 percent. As you can see, the greatest impact of EPA regulations will be concentrated in the Upper Midwest, the South and New England.

The EPA regulations involved are:

1) The Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR), aimed at controlling sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions from power plants in 27 states that contribute to fine-particle pollution and ozone in adjacent states. This rule was scheduled to go into effect on January 1, 2012 but has since been delayed by a court appeal.

2) Air Toxics Standard (MATS), applying to mercury, hydrogen chloride and other particulate matter than is regarded as hazardous to health. This is scheduled to go into effect on January 1, 2015.

3) Section 316b of the Clean Water Act, which will require cooling water intake structures to implement the Best Available Technology. This will essentially require all coal plants to build the parabolic cooling towers now usually associated with nuclear reactors. 4) The Coal Combustion Residuals (CCR), which will crack down on the disposal of coal ash.

5) The Greenhouse Gas Standard (GHG) intended to limit carbon dioxide emissions under the premise that these are leading to global warming, which constitutes a hazard to health. The rule will only be applied to new power plants and it is assumed that it will make new construction virtually impossible unless some technology for carbon capture is developed. The GHG standards were released on March 27 2012 but there is as yet no indication when they will be promulgated.

All these regulations are likely to weigh heavily on existing coal plants and to make the construction of new ones difficult or impossible. It is probably no exaggeration to say the EPA has declared a “War on Coal.” The map shows that, except for the Upper Midwest, nearly all shutdowns will occur east of the Mississippi. Western states have never invested that heavily in coal, even though half the nation’s coal now comes out of the Powder River Basin in Wyoming. The vast hydroelectric resources of the West plus the construction of nuclear power plants have made up the difference.

The only interesting anomaly is that shutdowns will not be so intense in the nation’s oldest “Coal Country” – Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Michigan and Indiana. The reasons seem to be: 1) many urban areas in these states are now served by nuclear power, and 2) many new coal plants have been constructed with pollution equipment that will meet the new EPA standards.

The general assumption of both the EPA and many commentators is that the loss of coal generation will be made up for by the increasing availability of natural gas.  Except for the Vogtle plants in Georgia and the Charles Summer project in South Carolina, new nuclear reactors are not likely to be available to make up the difference.

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