Earth Policy Institute: The End of an Era — Closing the Door on Building New Coal-fired Power Plants in America

This viewpoint does not seem to have occurred to the Kansas legislature, which is attempting for the fourth time in a year to pass a bill that would let Sunflower Electric Power Corporation build a 1,400-megawatt coal-burning power plant in Holcomb. With vast wind resources, it makes little sense for Kansas to rely on coal, a more expensive out-of-state fuel that creates fewer jobs than wind development for a given investment. Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius has vetoed all attempts by the legislature to approve the coal plant.

In June 2008, Georgia Superior Court Judge Thelma Moore, in accordance with the Massachusetts v. EPA ruling, rescinded an air pollution permit issued by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources for the proposed 1,200-megawatt Longleaf coal-fired power plant. Judge Moore’s action halted construction on the plant and marked the first time that CO2 had been cited as a factor in denying an air pollution permit. And in February 2009, Georgia legislators introduced House Bill 276 calling for an immediate moratorium on the construction of new coal-fired power plants in the state and the phase-out by mid-2016 of the burning of any coal extracted by mountaintop removal.

Power companies and utilities are responding to the increasing regulatory uncertainty and mounting public opposition by backing away from coal and turning to clean, renewable sources of energy, such as wind, solar, and geothermal. Dynegy Inc., a wholesale power provider serving 13 states, announced in January 2009 that it will no longer continue its joint venture with LS Power Associates, L.P., to build up to seven new coal-fired power plants. On the day that Dynegy made the announcement, its stock price rose 19 percent. Several weeks later, Arizona’s largest electric utility, Arizona Public Service Co., submitted a Resource Plan to the Arizona Corporation Commission indicating that it will not build any new coal-fired power plants because the carbon risk is too high. In late February, Oklahoma Gas & Electric released a plan to turn to renewable energy and defer building any fossil-fired power plants until at least 2020.

The notion that the United States needs additional coal-fired electricity generation to meet electrical demand is misguided. Simply using electricity more efficiently could reap large energy gains. A recent study by the Rocky Mountain Institute found that if the 40 least energy-efficient states raised their electric productivity—the dollars of gross domestic product generated per kilowatt hour of electricity consumed—to the average level of the 10 most efficient states, 62 percent of coal-fired power generation in the United States could be shut down—roughly 370 coal plants.

The events of the past two years illustrate that the door is closing on the prospect of building new coal-fired power plants in the United States. While only five new coal plants, totaling 1,400 megawatts, began operation in 2008, more than 100 wind farms capable of generating 8,400 megawatts came online. Yet this is only the beginning. To have a decent chance of mitigating the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change, our attention should now turn to phasing out all coal-fired electricity generation over the next decade.

Copyright © 2009 Earth Policy Institute

Image credit: theslowlane at Flickr under a Creative Commons license

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