In 2014, 39 percent of American electricity was generated by burning coal – down from 52.8 percent from 1997. Though the fuel source has steadily declined from its late 20th century peak due to competition with other energy sources and increased enforcement of environmental safety measures, the coal industry still maintains great economic and political power. However Big Coal may face its biggest challenge yet as the EPA implements new regulations governing greenhouse gas emissions. As a result, coal plants are shutting down at an impressive rate.
As of April 2015, it is estimated that 4,600 MW of coal-generated power has already been shut down, or “retired,” with another 7,700 MW expected by the end of the year. Coal plant shutdowns in 2015 constitute 4 percent of total installed coal power generation and one-third of the total coal shutdowns between 2010 and 2015. The average age of power plants scheduled for shutdown is 55 years while the remaining coal plants are significantly more efficient and environmentally sound than the decommission dinosaurs.
After 2015, annual coal power shutdowns decrease substantially with coal shutdowns of 7,300 MW expected in 2016 and only 7,000 between 2017 and 2022. Still, the scheduled shutdowns represent the most forceful effort yet by the federal government to combat the threat of climate change. By recognizing greenhouse gases as hazardous to public health, the Obama Administration is empowered by the Clean Air Act to take action to protect the citizenry, even if that means ruffling a few feathers. “These generating units have provided the backbone of the American dream for decades,” says American Electric Power Co. Inc. (AEP) President and CEO Nick Akins. AEP, along with the Tennessee Valley Authority, will bear the brunt of the coal shutdowns in the short term, though both companies plan to adapt to the changing landscape by shifting towards renewable energy and natural gas.
Though utilities seem to be adjusting to the change, their politicians continue to fight the future. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, senior senator from coal country Kentucky, is on a fervent quest to defeat the new climate regulations, a fight that has taken him beyond the Senate floor. In March, Senator McConnell sent a letter to the governor of every state, urging them to resist the regulations and providing them with a detailed legal defense to use in their efforts. While Kentucky’s economy have suffered as coal has declined, coal mining was never kind to workers. Until the 1980s, it was not unusual for at least 1,000 coal workers to die annually on the job. The health risks of coal mining, even in ideal circumstances, are well documented. Instead of fighting to keep inefficient, hazardous coal plants in operation, Senator McConnell may better serve his constituents by advocating for job retraining programs for an eventual post-carbon economy.
Via SNL Energy