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Flurry of Coal Power Plant Shutdowns Expected by 2016

A flurry of coal-fired power plants — major sources of climate change-fueling carbon dioxide emissions — could be closed by 2016, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts.

New emissions regulations and low natural gas prices, partly because of the fracking boom throughout the U.S., are leading utilities to shut down coal-fired power plants and open new ones that burn natural gas. With new Environmental Protection Agency emissions standards limiting mercury, acid gases and toxic metals from coal-fired power plants taking effect in 2015, there is even more impetus for utilities to retire older coal plants, according to the EIA.

The coal-fired Navajo Generating Station near Page, Ariz.
Credit: USGS

Because of those new standards, the EIA forecasts that 90 percent of the power plants expected to shut down by 2020 will actually be shut down by 2016. Those new standards include coal-fired power plants likely having to install flue gas desulfurization equipment, or “scrubbers,” which cost hundreds of millions of dollars each, depending on the size of the plant.

Utilities may decide to shutter a coal-fired power plant if coal prices, wholesale electricity prices and the costs of installing scrubbers do not make economic sense, according to the EIA.

Coal-fired power plants are feeling the heat about carbon emissions, too. Concern about coal plants’ carbon emission contributing to climate change are driving the EPA to write new carbon emissions rules unrelated to the new mercury standards. The EPA has proposed new regulations aiming to curb carbon emissions from future coal-fired power plants and is in the process of proposing similar regulations governing existing coal power plants.

Coal has also been losing market share to natural gas for electric power generation in recent years. Few coal-fired power plants are under construction, and there is little expectation that any new coal plants will be built even without new regulations, Dallas Burtraw, senior fellow at natural resources policy think tank Resources for the Future, said last year.

The EIA is expecting utilities to shutter more coal-fired power plants this decade than utilities have officially reported because of the tough economics of coal and the new federal emissions regulations. The EIA can’t say exactly how many coal plants it expects to close in the coming years because the plants vary dramatically in size, but the EIA is projecting 60 gigawatts of coal power plant capacity will be retired by 2020. That's enough electric generating capacity to power about 27 million homes. 

U.S. Energy Information Administration's coal plant retirement projections published in the Annual Energy Outlook for 2014, or AEO2014.
Credit: EIA

At the end of 2012, there were 1,308 coal-fired power generating units spread across 557 power plant sites in the U.S. with the total capacity to generate 310 gigawatts of electricity. That year, 10.2 gigawatts of coal-fired capacity were retired, or 3.2 percent of 2011 capacity. Most of the plants that were taken offline in 2010, 2011 and 2012 were small, averaging 97 megawatts each, EIA data show.

The agency expects long-term pressure on coal plants to ease after 2020.

“Post-2020, demand for electricity in our projections increases as well as natural gas prices,” EIA analyst Michael Leff said. “Therefore, there is less long-term economic pressure on coal post-2020, barring no future regulations.”


By Joe (Washington, DC)
on February 20th, 2014

This is great news that the shift away from coal power is finally happening decades later than it should have. However, if Duke Energy’s handling of closed plants sets any sort of precedent, then the ramifications of burning coal will be felt for generations, threatening the water and soil quality of entire regions.

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By jason
on February 23rd, 2014

yeah because no other form of electricity generation causes any problems right - or how about bp spilling millions of barrels of oil in the gulf does that count

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By Robin (bangkok 10220)
on October 16th, 2014

You do not burn oil in a power station it is just too expensive. The same you do not burn coal in a car it dont work.

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By R. L. Hails Sr. P. E. (Ret.) (Olney/MD/20832)
on February 26th, 2014

I take no joy in learning that a major life sustaining industry has been destroyed by government dictate.  Tens of thousands of skilled experienced Americans can kiss their livelihood good bye, forever.  Virtually all of their skill sets have no other marketable value.  We treat them just like we treated the American Indian.

However, unlike the expansive policies of the 19 th century, there is no alternate energy technology that is a killer app. All green energies cost more, and will cost more.  All require government coercion in the market place to compete.  Thus our economy will be weaken further as more marginal energy intensive industries move off shore in order to survive.  We are on a certain economic glide path to permanent recession.

It is plastered all over the news that the major Chinese cities, largely powered by coal with no pollution systems, have environments twenty times over our EPA regs.  But their tens of millions survive, even prosper as they burn twice as much coal as we do.  They will not stop.

Some body is going to lose their nation due to energy policy.

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By Nathanael
on March 8th, 2014

Wrong.  Solar is the killer app and it is cheaper.


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By Jim Moore (Lockport)
on June 27th, 2014

Solar replacing coal as a reliable energy source? Are you kidding me? Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of cleaner alternatives or cleaner generation facilities but how do you replace coal with solar for in areas such as the midwest and eastern seaboard as a reliable power source? How do you replace coal with solar for the winter months as a reliable resource? Also, how many thousand’s upon thousand’s of square feet of solar panels would be necessary to replace the load generated from just a medium size coal plant.
If you are fine with brown outs and black outs and businesses shutting down then keep closing coal plants without a realistic alternative.

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By Steve (Denver, CO)
on August 22nd, 2014

I have been in the air monitoring industry for over 20 years. This new rule will hurt the USA in many bad ways.
As far as “Green” energy is false. Wind is killing farm lands by polluting the land with oils and grease destroying the soil. Solar, or the making there of, is destroying water resources along with true nasty air issues.

The government is truely trying to keep us in the dark and out of work so they have more control. I never thought I would ever write these words but I have seen way more of the problems than most have ever seen.
I have travelled to all but 3 states and overseas. We are second only to the UK when it comes to air pollution.

The true problem is that the government will not budge on finding new sources of energy. what is the problem?

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By M K E (White Hall/Arkansas/71602)
on October 24th, 2014

I have relatives that work for the an enviromental company. They say that all this is all just a political motivated issue that only effects states that do not have enough lobbyists willing to push back. They say that smaller states are just getting pushed around, and that their state of Texas just has better power brokers. I for one do not buy that. They are a bit on the snobby engineer side who seem oblivious to the viewpoint of the UN Agenda 21, the geo-political power grab of climate change and all that goes along with it. I think it is coming to a state near us all. The shut-down of the power grid…or at least a rationing of energy.

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