Is coal’s death looming?

by Teresa Hansen

Some of you might think this issue’s cover depicting coal’s demise is too extreme. I was hesitant to use it for that reason, but during the last couple of weeks, coal-fired power generation has been targeted by the EPA, the United Nations and to some degree, the Clinton Global Initiative, making its future more unpredictable and uncertain than before.

On Sept. 20, the EPA released its proposed pollution standards for new fossil-fired power plants. Under the proposed rules, new coal-fired units would need to emit less than 1,100 pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) per megawatt hour (MWh); or, they would have the option to meet a tighter limit of between 1,000 and 1,050 pounds of CO2 per MWh on average over 84 months of operation. The EPA said this would provide new plants flexibility and time to optimize technologies. Because the average U.S. coal plant emits 1,768 pounds of CO2 per MWhr, new units would have to use carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology to meet the new plant requirement. Most utility experts say CCS technology is still in research and development and is not ready to be implemented on a large scale. In addition, it’s expensive.

The new rules also proposed a limit of 1,000 pounds of CO2 emissions for large natural gas-fired plants. Because large combined-cycle gas turbine (CCGT) plants emit 800 to 850 pounds of CO2 per MWh, they already meet the standard, giving electricity generators one more reason to run toward natural gas and steer clear of coal.

The EPA is expected to propose carbon emission standards for existing coal-fired units in about 18 months. The uncertainty about these standards adds more pressure to the industry.

The EPA announcement alone would have been bad enough for the coal industry, but to add insult to injury, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a U.N. sponsored group of the world’s top scientists, recently produced a report on the physical science of climate change. The full 900 page report hasn’t yet been released, but a 36-page summary was made available just days after EPA proposed the new plant standards. In it, the panel endorsed a “carbon budget for humanity,” limiting the amount of CO2 that can be produced by industrial activities and deforestation. If adopted in the U.S., the U.N.’s proposed carbon budget could set emission limits even lower than those set by the EPA.

The Clinton Global Initiative is a nonprofit organization founded by President Bill Clinton in 2005 to create and implement innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges, including climate change. The organization held its annual meeting Sept. 23-26 in New York. One of the main discussion topics was building resilient cities and coastlines. The destruction and devastation New York City suffered due to Hurricane Sandy was part of that discussion. President Clinton, former Vice President Al Gore and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg spoke about global warming and its contribution to extreme weather events and coastal flooding. I watched an interview with Clinton and Gore on Bloomberg TV, in which they called for greater restrictions on coal-fired plants around the world and development of more renewable energy, as well as natural gas-fired generation.

These recent rules and calls to action regarding coal-fired generation are the latest in a growing list of rules and regulations that impact the industry. In the article “What Section 316(b) Means for Public Utilities” on page 16, the authors write about how EPA’s Section 316(b) is impacting public utilities. Another article on page 22 titled “The Tale of Cooling Towers: Regulations Drive Fossil Plant Design, Water Management System Innovation” explains how regulations and water restrictions are affecting coal-fired plants. In addition, “Demand Response in EPA MATS Era Bridges the Coal-to-Gas Gap” on page 26 discusses the EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxic Standards (MATS) rule. In it, the author explains how utilities can use demand response as they transition from coal- to natural gas-fired generation.

These articles provide insight into how utilities have adjusted or plan to adjust to existing rules aimed at lowering coal-fired generation’s environmental impact. I suspect that in a few months, Electric Light & Power will publish articles that cover the rules and initiatives mentioned here.

I wonder, however, if and when the growing list of rules and restrictions will price coal-fired power out of the generation mix. Will most of our coal-related articles be about the retirement and replacement of the nation’s coal-fired power plants? Given the current trends, I think it’s OK to ask: Is coal’s death looming?

Teresa Hansen, editor in chief

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