Coal-fired plants continued to close in 2107, and utility sector carbon emissions dropped sharply
Energize Weekly, December 27, 2017
Coal-fired power plants continued to close in 2017, and the utility industry was overtaken by the transport sector as the largest source of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, according to federal data.
In all, 54 units at 27 coal-fired plants, with a total of 27 gigawatts (GW) generating capacity, closed or announced closure plans this year. Closings came across the nation and even in coal country, with the Elmer Smith Power Plant in Owensboro, Ky., to be shuttered by 2023 after 59 years of operation.
Such closures along with the switch to less carbon-intense generation, such as natural gas turbines, or carbon-free wind and solar generation, has steadily cut the sector’s CO2 emissions.
“On a 12-month rolling total basis, electric power sector CO2 emissions are now regularly below transportation sector CO2 emissions for the first time since the late 1970s,” according to the federal Energy Information Administration (EIA). “CO2 emissions from electric power have been trending lower since 2007.”
While aging plants initially made up the bulk of the 531 coal-fired units shut between 2007 and 2016, a few plants built after 1970 were among the 2017 announced closures, according to analysis by E&E News.
The falling cost of wind and solar generation and stiff competition from natural gas-fired plants, which are cheaper to build and run, have all undermined coal plants, despite efforts by the Trump administration to roll back federal rules and regulations it said are hampering the coal industry.
By 2016, U.S. coal plant run times had slipped to 52 percent from 60 percent in 2013, according to the EIA.
The “Beyond Coal” campaign of the Sierra Club, a national environmental group, estimates that 268 coal-fired plants have been retired or targeted for retirement since 2010 and that there are 255 plants still operating.
Among the largest plants slated for closure are: the 2,400 megawatt (MW) Navajo Generating Station in Page, Ariz.; the 1,252 MW St. Johns River Power Park in Jacksonville, Fla.; and the 1,190 MW Pleasant Prairie Power plant in Pleasant Prairie, Wis.
Luminant, a subsidiary of Vistra Energy, announced in October, it will close two coal-fueled power plants in Central Texas—the two-unit Sandow Power Plant in Milam County and the two-unit Big Brown Power Plant in Freestone County. The two plants’ 2,300 MW capacity will be taken offline in early 2018.
In May, DTE Energy Co., Michigan’s largest electricity supplier, announced plans to close eight units at four plants, with a total of 3,355 MW of capacity, by 2050.
As a result of the closure of coal-fired plants and the shift to other forms of generation, CO2 emissions for the sector dropped more than 20 percent between 2007 and 2016, according to the EIA.
From October 2015 to September 2016, CO2 emissions from the transportation sector reached 1,893 million metric tons, exceeding electric power sector CO2 emissions of 1,803 million metric tons, the EIA said.
“The electric power sector makes up a larger share of total U.S. energy consumption than the transportation sector,” the EIA said. “However, CO2 emissions from the electric power sector are now lower than those from transportation because the carbon intensity of the power sector has fallen much faster than the carbon intensity of the transportation sector.”
Emissions from the electric power sector are primarily from coal-fired and natural gas-fired electric generators. On average, coal-combustion carbon emissions are almost twice as high as the 117 pounds of CO2 per million British thermal units for natural gas.
“Natural gas electric generators also tend to be more efficient than coal generators, because they require less fuel to generate electricity,” according to EIA.
An EIA analysis of 2015 CO2 emissions from U.S. coal consumption found a decrease in emission year-over-year in 43 states, with 60 percent of the drop coming from 10 states, with the single largest decline in Texas. The next largest drops were recorded in Indiana, Ohio, Illinois and Pennsylvania.