26 Coal-Fired Power Plants in 14 States Plan to Stop Burning Coal Due to New Rule

Dozens of coal-fired power plants across the U.S. plan to stop burning coal or to shut down by the end of the decade, the Associated Press reported.

The decision is not driven by climate change concerns but to comply with a new wastewater rule requiring them to clean coal ash and toxic heavy metals from the water before it's dumped back into streams and rivers. The plants had an October deadline to tell state regulators how they plan to comply.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the rule is expected to affect 75 coal-fired power plants across the country. The Sierra Club said at least 26 plants in 14 states said they will stop burning coal, with 21 shutting down and five switching to natural gas.

Zack Fabish, a Sierra Club lawyer, told AP the "free ride" these plants have been getting is ending.

"And them choosing to retire by 2028 probably reflects the reality that a lot of the subsidies they have been getting in terms of being able to dump their wastewater into the commons, they are not going to be able to do that in the future," Fabish said.

The EPA estimates that the rule will reduce waterway pollutants by about 386 million pounds annually and will cost plant operators, collectively, almost $200 million annually.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Pennsylvania, power plant, coal
Climate change isn’t what’s driving some U.S. coal-fired power plants to shut down. It's the expense of stricter pollution controls on their wastewater. Above, smoke billows from the Conemaugh Generation Station in New Florence, Pennsylvania, on February 6, 2007. Todd Berkey/The Tribune-Democrat via AP

The electric power sector has spent years transitioning from coal to cheaper, cleaner-burning natural gas and renewables like wind and solar. Nationwide, about 30 percent of generating capacity at coal plants has been retired since 2010, according to the Energy Information Administration. (Coal use at power plants is expected to surge more than 20 percent this year because of sharply higher natural gas prices—the first such increase since 2014—but the energy agency said it expects that trend to be temporary.)

Two of Pennsylvania's largest coal-fired power plants, Keystone and Conemaugh outside Pittsburgh, said they will stop using coal and retire all of their generating units by Dec. 31, 2028, according to regulatory notices obtained separately by The Associated Press.

The long-term move away from coal has been pronounced in Pennsylvania, the nation's No. 3 coal-producing state after Wyoming and West Virginia. Coal's share of electrical power generation in the state declined from nearly half in 2010 to 10 percent last year, with operators taking advantage of a statewide boom in natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale, the nation's largest gas field. Seventeen Pennsylvania coal plants have been retired since 2009.

"The smallest, oldest [coal] plants were generally the ones the economics killed first. They were too expensive and too small to be retrofitted to meet new EPA standards," said Jean Reaves Rollins, president of The C Three Group, a market research firm focused on energy infrastructure and utilities.

She said coal plants in competitive electricity markets like Pennsylvania's have also come under pressure. "It is clear in the case of the two Pennsylvania plants, the cost of compliance will put them out of the economic running," she said.

Pennsylvania and neighboring Ohio have accounted for 20 percent of all coal-fueled power plant shutdowns in the U.S. in recent years, according to federal data.

Industry officials contend the mothballing of so many coal plants carries consequences for the nation's electric grid. Michelle Bloodworth, president and CEO of America's Power, a trade organization that advocates on behalf of coal-fueled electricity, cited recent blackouts in Texas and elsewhere as examples of "what happens when you go too far too fast."

"We are monitoring the situation currently but we do remain concerned that overly aggressive policies that lead to the premature retirement of dispatchable generation like the coal fleet will jeopardize the reliability and resilience of the electricity grid," Bloodworth said.

Experts have pointed out that in the case of last winter's massive Texas blackout, most of the megawatts that went offline were generated by gas, coal and nuclear plants.

David Masur, executive director of PennEnvironment, an environmental group, said the closures show that "with or without policies to reduce carbon pollution, the companies who own these antiquated power plants intend to shut them down or convert many of them anyway."

The planned shutdowns could leave Homer City Generating Station as the last large, traditional coal-fired power plant in the state still operating by decade's end. Homer City, which is east of Pittsburgh and is the largest coal plant in Pennsylvania, has told state regulators it plans to keep operating and abide by the new wastewater limits.

Owners of shuttering plants are responsible for environmental cleanup, according to the EPA.

coal-fired power plant, West Virginia
Many coal-fired power plants are shutting down after increased regulations on their wastewater. Above, the coal-fired Longview Power Plant on August 21, 2018, in Maidsville, West Virginia. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images