AEP / Climate Change / Coal / Energy

Will the U.S. ever build another big coal plant?

The coal industry is contracting as plants retire and utilities replace them with natural gas and renewables

WASHINGTON, DC — “About 16 percent of the U.S. coal fleet has retired in the past five years, but don’t expect major new coal-fired plants to fill that void.

The federal government counts four new coal projects on a list of planned power plants nationwide. Three of those face long odds, and none will be able to replace the millions of tons in lost coal demand resulting from recent retirements, even as the Trump administration has vowed to revive the ailing industry.

The developer of a proposed 320-megawatt unit in Wyoming is facing jail time after pleading guilty to stealing government cash. A Kentucky coke plant that would have generated electricity as a byproduct has been scrapped. And a planned $2.1 billion plant in Georgia has idled.

The sole U.S. coal facility under construction: a tiny plant being built by the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

The dynamic amounts to an existential crisis for the U.S. coal industry. While coal still accounts for roughly a third of U.S. power generation, the industry is slowly contracting as plants retire and utilities replace them with natural gas and renewables. American Electric Power Co. Inc., one of the country’s largest coal-burning utilities, recently announced plans to build a $4.5 billion wind farm in Oklahoma (Energywire. July 27). PacifiCorp, another coal-centric power company, has similar plans to upgrade its wind fleet while slowly transitioning away from power plants fueled by the black mineral (Climatewire, April 6).

Utilities entered 2017 with plans to retire 4.5 gigawatts of coal—or 2 percent of 2016 U.S. coal capacity—and add 11 GW of natural gas and 8.5 GW of wind, according to figures from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The trend has prompted a series of rescue efforts. West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R) has proposed a $15-per-ton subsidy for utilities burning Appalachian coal (Greenwire, Aug 8). In Congress, there is an effort afoot to expand tax credits for power plants that use carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) (E&E Daily, July 13). Both efforts hint at coal’s long-term challenges and the reason for the dearth of planned coal plants.”

— Benjamin Storrow, ClimateWire

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