Utilities are accelerating shutdowns of coal-fired power plants

By: Karen Graham |

As coal-fired power plants in the U.S. grow increasingly uneconomic, capacity retirements by year-end are likely to hit a record 15.4 GW, exceeding the previous record of 14.7 GW set in 2015.

In his report, Seth Feaster, an Energy Analyst with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) outlines how 44 units at 22 coal-fired plants will likely be closing in 14 states across the United States in 2018.

Aging and costly coal plants can no longer compete against cheaper renewables and liquid natural gas-fired generation, and sizable plant closures are already being seen or will be seen in Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

“The competitive environment for coal-fired power in the generation marketplace is becoming ever more challenging as the price of renewables continues to fall and as natural gas prices are expected to remain low for the foreseeable future,” said Feaster.

Coal-fired capacity to be closed

The IEEFA is also looking down the road, expecting an additional 21.4 GW of coal-fired capacity closing over the next six years. This will bring the total of coal-fired capacity retired between 2018 and 2024 to 36.7 GW — made up of 117 units, in turn, reducing the country’s 246 GW coal-fired power fleet by 15 percent through 2024.

Ohio River Valley to be hardest hit

The Ohio River Valley will be impacted the hardest with the closures, with four sizable plants to be shuttered in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. It is expected that employees with FirstEnergy Solutions, Murray Energy, and Westmoreland Coal will be impacted by the closures.

FirstEnergy closed its Bruce Mansfield Power Plant, with a capacity of 2,510 MW in Beaver County, Pa., and the W.H. Sammis Power Plant, with a capacity of 2,210 MW in Jefferson County, Ohio in August this year.

FirstEnergy also has plans to retire its Pleasants Power Station, with a capacity of 1,300 MW in Pleasants County, W. Va., in 2022. American Electric Power (AEP) will be closing its Conesville Power Plant, with a capacity of 1,530 MW, in Coshocton County, Ohio, in early 2019.

Outlook according to IEEFA

According to the IEEFA report, the electric-generating industry is well into a fundamental transition that is gaining momentum and will probably accelerate as technology disruptions occur, most notably around advances in energy storage.

The report cites the age and inflexibility of the coal infrastructure, noting that renewable-generated electricity, by comparison, continues to become increasingly cheaper to produce and gas-fired generation is proving more suitable to grid modernization. This last is something that a number of utilities are already pursuing.

Feaster explains that even though the coal industry may loom large in the imaginations of many people across the country, in reality, it is quite small, “both in terms of jobs and its overall economic contribution nationally.”

And the reality of what Feaster says is backed up by a report published in May by researchers from North Carolina State University and the University of Colorado Boulder that showed that declining natural gas prices were primarily responsible for the significant reduction in US coal use for power generation over the past decade, putting to rest (for the moment) the mythical “War on Coal.”

“It’s renewables and gas, each independently undercutting the economics of coal generation,” Feaster explained. “Wind and solar are a lot less “intermittent” than most people think, especially when spread across large areas and at large, utility-scale projects. But they do ramp up and down — and gas generation happens to be well suited to ramp up or down across the day to complement the output of renewables.”

Utilities are accelerating shutdowns of coal-fired power plants