Coal-fired power plants are shutting their doors at a record pace — and for the most part, nobody’s building new ones.
The latest round in the war on coal? Not exactly. The reality is that Americans’ lights will stay on just fine even as coal plants continue to close, thanks to a quiet revolution in energy efficiency and a boom time for cheap natural gas. Throw in some stricter rules for older plants, and the result is a sharp drop in the economic viability of coal-fired power.
The coal industry and its supporters have blamed these trends on a “war on coal” by President Barack Obama, but the facts on the ground don’t entirely support the political rhetoric. True, Environmental Protection Agency regulations are forcing older plants to reduce pollution and upgrade their equipment, helping drive the wave of shutdowns. But increasingly efficient homes, office buildings and factories and a fall in demand for electricity are big reasons why power companies don’t need to build replacements right away — possibly for another two decades.
Even in coal-heavy Kentucky, utilities have decided that at times, closing a big coal plant is the least costly option. And many customers won’t even notice that the plants are gone.
“While many coal plants are expected to close, for a variety of reasons we are unlikely to feel it at the light switch,” said Jennifer Macedonia, a senior adviser at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
The coal industry adamantly disagrees. Laura Sheehan, a senior vice president of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, warned last week that dozens of states will see “dire social, economic and electric reliability consequences of taking coal offline.”
Even so, power companies are likely to build few plants in the next 20 years, according to numerous analysts, the U.S. Energy Information Administration and the EPA. Instead, many experts say, it’s more fiscally prudent to invest in energy efficiency and upgraded transmission lines.
In many states, power suppliers have ramped up previously underused natural-gas-fired power plants to take the place of the shuttered coal plants. Increasing numbers of wind, solar, geothermal and hydropower projects are coming online too, though not nearly enough to make up for the lost capacity.
Mainly, people and businesses are just using less electricity. Nationally, the U.S. averaged a 1.3 percent drop in power generation from 2011 to 2012.
In typically coal-loyal Ohio, net power generation dropped 4.3 percent from 2011 to 2012, according to data the Energy Information Administration released this month. During the same period, the net amount of power in the state generated by coal fell 18.7 percent, while the amount generated by natural gas skyrocketed 83.7 percent.
In most states, power generation has continued to fall during 2013. U.S. electricity sales have dropped in four of the last five years and are on track to do the same this year, the EIA reported Friday . Industrial electricity sales went down, and electricity sales to homes and commercial buildings stayed flat, “despite growth in the number of households and commercial building space.”
“Some of it is due to slowly coming out of the recession, but a large part of that has to do with increasing energy efficiency,” Macedonia said. In addition, existing power plants have a lot of unused capacity — many natural gas plants are operating nowhere near 100 percent.
Environmentalists are thrilled with the changes, which aid the campaign many activists have been waging to drive coal power into the history books. “In most places demand is flat or slightly declining, so as you bring coal offline you don’t need any replacement whatsoever,” said Bruce Nilles, senior director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.
In Kentucky, where several coal-fired power plants intend to shut down, electricity planners have “no concern with adequate reserve,” said Andrew Melnykovych, a spokesman for the state Public Service Commission.
Some experts are skeptical about that optimism, expressing concern that enough reserve power will exist to keep the lights on in the Midwest. Widespread coal plant shutdowns will come fast in that region, thanks to EPA’s tight deadline for utilities to ratchet down toxic air pollution.
Even if the Midwest’s electric grid operator has enough spare capacity, some smaller areas within the region could find themselves stretched, leading to blackouts or brownouts, said Philip Moeller, a board member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Moeller has warned about the difficulties that planning agencies will face in preparing for this unprecedented overhaul of the power system.
Trusting demand to stay low isn’t the solution, Moeller said. “We can hope for a cool summer in 2016, but that’s not necessarily a prudent approach for doing our jobs,” he said.
Still, the shutdowns show no signs of slowing.
In the past year, power companies have announced plans to close big coal plants in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, while the Tennessee Valley Authority last month announced a string of shutdowns coming in the next few years. In Kentucky, the company American Electric Power scrapped a planned $1 billion anti-pollution upgrade of its Big Sandy coal plant at the urging of various groups, including some who worried manufacturers would flee the area when faced with a potential 30 percent boost in electricity