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Burned out

Science | Coal-fired power plants topple beneath regulation and cheap natural gas

Issue: "The brain trust," June 30, 2012

Under the increasing weight of environmental regulations, dozens of coal-fired power plants across the United States are preparing to shut their doors. Energy companies are switching to cheaper natural gas, a shift that is changing the face of the electricity sector.

The plant retirements affect jobs and utility rates. Electric bills may increase, at least temporarily, for customers in some Midwest states by 2015-perhaps by $130 a year. But other electric customers-such as ratepayers in Massachusetts and northwest Florida-are expecting smaller bills this year: Natural gas prices have plummeted, and regional energy providers that operate a large number of gas-powered plants are able to offer lower rates.

It's the plants powered by coal that are getting pulverized. The Environmental Protection Agency set rules last year that require coal plants to significantly reduce the emission of mercury, sulfur dioxide, and other pollutants from their smokestacks. To enable older coal plants to comply with the rules, power companies must invest hundreds of millions of dollars to install pollution scrubber technology. With a glut of cheap natural gas on the market, one after another has decided to build gas-powered plants instead.

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In Kentucky, American Electric Power abandoned a $940 million plan to install scrubbers on its Big Sandy coal plant near Louisa, built in the 1960s. Locals had been conflicted: They would have had to pay an extra $31 a month in utility bills to fund the project. Yet powering down Big Sandy coal burners in favor of natural gas (as American Electric now plans to do) will likely prompt layoffs among Kentucky coal miners.

Midwest Generation in May announced it would close Chicago's last two coal plants by September. In exchange for shuttering the two plants, environmental groups promised the energy provider they wouldn't oppose an extension request Midwest filed with Illinois regulators, asking for more time to decide whether to shut down a third coal plant in Waukegan, Ill., or spend $160 million retrofitting it with pollution controls.

The sound of a coal plant locking its doors is music to the ears of many environmentalists. The Sierra Club, which has spent millions of dollars opposing coal power, boasts it has helped cancel plans to build 169 coal plants across the nation. Since January 2010, 110 U.S. coal plants (out of about 500) have announced they will retire amidst the regulatory onslaught.

The closures are changing the power sector makeup dramatically, according to the Energy Department. Coal use among U.S. power plants decreased by a fifth from March 2011 to March 2012. Natural gas use has filled the void, expanding by 40 percent during the same period.

Less filling

Bloomberg (David McNew/Getty Images) and Cola (iStock)

Zealous to improve public health, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to outlaw large soft drinks in the Big Apple's restaurants, movie theaters, and sports arenas. A proposal awaiting health board approval would ban sales of sweetened beverages larger than 16 fluid ounces, with the exception of diet drinks, fruit juice, and milkshakes.

New Yorkers would still be able to refill a small soda cup at a restaurant, or buy any size beverage bottle from grocery stores. -Daniel James Devine

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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