Coal-fired power plants to close after new wastewater rule

Climate change isn't the reason some coal-fired power plants are shutting down. It's the cost of pollution controls on their wastewater.

Dozens of plants nationwide plan to stop burning coal this decade to comply with more stringent federal wastewater guidelines, as the industry continues moving away from the planet-warming fossil fuel to make electricity.

The new wastewater rule requires power plants to clean coal ash and toxic heavy metals from their wastewater before it is dumped into streams and rivers. The Environmental Protection Agency says the rule will affect 75 coal-fired power plants.

The plants had to tell their state regulators how they planned to comply by October, with options including retiring their coal-fired generating units orUpgrading their pollution-control equipment.

At least 26 plants in 14 states will stop burning coal because of the national impact of the wastewater rule, according to the Sierra Club. The environmental group said that twenty-one of the plants intend to shut down, and five indicated they may switch to natural gas.

The free ride these plants have been getting is ending in a lot of ways. They are not going to be able to dump their wastewater into the commons in the future because of the subsidies they have been getting.

The rule will reduce the discharge of pollutants into the nation's waterways. It is expected to cost plant operators nearly $200 million per year to implement.

Two of Pennsylvania's largest coal-fired power plants, Conemaugh and Keystone, will stop using coal by the end of the century, according to regulatory notices obtained by The Associated Press.

More than 50 years ago, the plants opened and employed about 320 full-time workers and 170 contractors. They generate enough power for 1.5 million homes according to industry averages.

The Sierra Club data shows that Pennsylvania is one of many states that plan to stop using coal by the year 2028.

Atlanta-based Southern Co. and Houston-based NRG are two power producers that say they will close coal-fired units. The nation's two largest coal-fired power plants, Scherer and Bowen, in Georgia, will be the only coal-fired power plants in Southern's fleet. The company plans to stop burning coal at its domestic plants outside of Texas and install new pollution controls at its two Texas plants.

The electric power sector has been transitioning from coal to cleaner burning natural gas and renewable energy. According to the Energy Information Administration, 30% of generating capacity at coal plants has been retired. The energy agency said it expects that coal use at power plants will increase more than 20% this year because of higher natural gas prices.

Pennsylvania, the nation's third-largest coal- producing state, is moving away from coal. Coal's share of electrical power generation in the state fell from 50% in 2010 to 10% last year, as operators took advantage of the boom in natural gas drilling in the state. Since 2009, seventeen Pennsylvania coal plants have been retired.

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

Coal plants in competitive electricity markets have come under pressure. She said that the cost of compliance will put the two Pennsylvania plants out of the running.

According to federal data, Pennsylvania and Ohio have accounted for 20% of all coal-fired power plant shutdowns in the US.

Talen Energy is a power producer that holds a stake in the Conemaugh and Keystone plants. The chief operating officer of the plants did not return calls or emails.

The nation's electric grid is at risk because of the mothballing of so many coal plants. The president and CEO of America's Power, a trade organization that advocates on behalf of coal- fueled electricity, cited recent power failures in Texas as examples of what can happen when you go too far too fast.

Bloodworth said that they are 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.

Most of the megawatts that went offline during the Texas winter were generated by gas, coal and nuclear plants, according to experts.

In Pennsylvania, the planned retirements of Keystone and Conemaugh come as building trade unions, industry groups and coal communities fight the state's planned entry into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a multi-state consortium that imposes a price on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants that use coal, The first major fossil fuel state to adopt a carbon pricing policy would be Pennsylvania.

David Masur, executive director of PennEnvironment, an environmental group, said 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 Homer City Generating Station is the last large, traditional coal-fired power plant in the state. The largest coal plant in Pennsylvania, Homer City, has told state regulators that it will abide by the new wastewater limits.

The EPA says that shuttering plants are responsible for the environment.