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Is Coal a Fuel of the Future?

August 12, 2011

Few reasonable people can dispute that the EPA is conducting a war against coal.

A large number of new regulations affecting coal-fired power plants have been proposed in rapid-fire succession by the EPA.

The rapidity with which they have emerged and the short time allowed for implementing corrective action, have made it virtually impossible for utilities to respond rationally except to consider shutting down plants and removing them from service.

The good news is that older and less utilized coal-fired power plants can be retired without seriously affecting the availability of affordable electricity – providing the EPA doesn’t force the retirement of coal fired power plants too quickly.

The bad news is that EPA regulations also threaten newer plants and deter the building of modern, highly efficient ultra-supercritical coal-fired power plants to replace the older, less efficient plants that are retired.

Studies have attempted to quantify the number of plants that would be closed over the next ten years as a result of EPA rules.

An analysis by the Editor in Chief of Power Magazine developed a rational approach for identifying plant closures and found that many existing older plants could be closed without seriously affecting the availability of electricity – providing the plants aren’t closed too quickly. This is the best analysis I have seen on this subject.

This analysis identified 305 units built before 1960 that didn’t have Flue Gas Desulfurization (FGD) and Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR).

Since capacity factor is an indication of how intensively a power plant is utilized, low capacity factors would suggest that plants could be retired without affecting the availability of electricity – providing new peaking units are built to provide power during peak periods, such as on hot summer days where air-conditioning increases electricity usage.

Out of the 305 plants built before 1960, as described above, 167 have capacity factors of 50% or less. If all 167 plants were closed, only 4.2% of gigawatt hours would be lost from coal-fired power plants.

Similarly, 85 plants have capacity factors of 40% or less, and if all these plants were closed, only 1.1% of gigawatt hours would be lost.

Even if all 305 plants were closed, only 11.9% of generation in gigawatt hours would be lost from coal-fired power plants, and this represents only 5.8% of our annual demand for electricity.

There are reasons why some of the 305 units would be repowered or have air quality equipment installed and therefore not be considered for retirement, but it’s clear that a large number of the 305 plants built before 1960 could be retired without affecting the availability of affordable electricity.

With cap and trade essentially dead, there is no reason to keep these units open for use as chips for securing carbon credits.

In other words, a rational business case can be made for closing a significant number of older coal-fired power plants in an orderly manner.

New EPA rules with respect to once-through water cooling and wet ash handling, will also threaten units built after 1960 with closure.

The EPA war against coal, therefore, goes beyond what could be decided on the basis of a rational business decision.

In addition to promoting the closure of coal-fired power plants, the EPA’s war against coal deters the building of new, efficient coal-fired power plants and thereby threatens the availability of affordable electricity.

As President Obama said, companies could build coal-fired power plants, but they would go bankrupt.

If it weren’t for EPA regulations, ultra-supercritical coal-fired power plants would be logical replacements for retired coal-fired power plants.

Market forces should be allowed to determine which type of power plant is built to supply Americans with electricity.

Currently the overnight cost for building an ultra-supercritical power plant is approximately $2.800 per KW. This is a little more than twice the cost of a natural gas combined cycle (NGCC) power plant.

While the cost of natural gas is low, as it is now, it’s likely that NGCC plants would prevail. When the price of natural gas increases, ultra-supercritical coal-fired power plants could be the preferred choice.

Ultra-supercritical coal-fired power plants operate at very high temperatures and pressures. They are substantially more efficient than existing subcritical coal-fired power plants. The average existing subcritical plant has a thermal efficiency of 33% HHV. The only ultra-supercritical plant being built in the United States is designed to have a thermal efficiency of 42% HHV.

Advanced ultra-supercritical plants are expected to have a thermal efficiency of around 47% HHV. This is over 40% more efficient than existing subcritical coal-fired plants.

China is building around twenty ultra-supercritical coal-fired power plants. Japan has also built several ultra-supercritical plants. Even Europe, with its extreme environmental rules, is building ultra-supercritical units.

The higher thermal efficiencies of these units have corresponding reductions in fuel and water use.

Interestingly, advanced ultra-supercritical coal-fired power plants will have about the same CO2 emissions as natural gas units.

While it’s entirely feasible to retire significant numbers of existing coal-fired power plants and have NGCC units taking up the slack in the near term, it will be necessary to build ultra-supercritical coal-fired power plants to provide the base load, low-cost electricity needed for a sound U.S. economy.

Coal and natural gas will be the fuels of the future – if we are to have a plentiful supply of low-cost electricity.

Next Tuesday I’ll comment on how those responsible for operating the electric grid have responded to the EPA’s demand for rapid closure of coal-fired power plants. They are very concerned about grid reliability because of the EPA’s new rules.

Note: The analysis, Predicting U.S. Coal Plant Retirements, By Dr. Robert Peltier, PE is available at

Note: HHV = High Heating Value

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Additional TSAugust web sites:

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 12, 2011 12:22 pm

    It appears the capacity factor for many of these old coal-fired is so low their contribution to air pollution is small and not significant. The need for haste to close the plants or add air pollution equipement is not present.

    Coal, our most abundant energy source unless you look at shale oil, is a natural for generating electricity. Natural gas has better uses than generating electricity such as heating, hot water heating, cooking, petro-chemicals, and maybe transportation. So we need to be careful in adding all this new electricity generating capacity being fueled by natural gas. This will drive up the price of natural gas and speed up the time when natural gas will be in short supply.

    In addition, having a substantial coal generating capacity for utilities improves their system reliability. Competing coal, natural gas, and nuclear electric power generation will insure competition and keep rates low. An addtional asset for coal is you can store the fuel on-site in 30 to 90 day supplies. Labor strikes and natural disasters will be of lesser importance using coal. I believe hurricane Katrina in 2005 disrupted natural gas supply to the East coast.

    James Rust

  2. August 12, 2011 12:36 pm

    You are correct.
    There is no need to rapidly shut down older coal-fired power plants, except that the EPA is on a vendetta against coal with regulations that power companies must follow or be susceptible to fines.
    Peak loads from air-conditioning could result in brownouts if these older units are retired before new peaking units are installed.
    Ultra supercritical coal-fired power plants should be built together with natural gas combined cycle plants. As you indicated, a combination of these types of power generation is essential for a stable grid and plentiful, low cost electricity.
    I have left nuclear out of the mix, though I’m a believer in nuclear power. At the moment, however, it doesn’t appear as though very many new nuclear plants will be built in the United States.

  3. August 12, 2011 1:28 pm


    Coal has been the whipping poster child of environmentalists for decades.

    I had first hand experience of this when I was advertising and sales promotion manager for Bucyrus-Erie company back in the late 70’s and early 80’s. For your readers who aren’t familiar that company was the leading manufacturer of large surface mining equipemnt that was and is used to mine coal.

    The company was always under fire from anti-coal zealots. We were known in environmental circles as the company that made the machines that rape the earth. Of course our critics never bothered to suggest what they might be doing without the coal, copper, iron and other minerals that Bucyrus-Erie equipment helped extract from the earth.

    Unfortunately, the EPA is filled with anti-coal zealots who feel they must hate coal and react to that hate. They perceive all the negatives of coal and therefore feel coal is bad and that provides them the catalyst to hate coal. They refuse to believe there can be any benefit from coal and will do anything to condemn its use.

    The truth is coal is neither good or bad. It is like all things natural it is what we make of it.
    How we mine and use coal has consequences that can be positive or negative.

    As our technology increases along with our understanding of the negative affects of coal we can continue to reduce or eliminate the less desirable impacts of using it and leveraging the positive results of the use of coal

    That is we could continue if this country wasn’t saddled with the emotional, illogical, and dictorial thinking that drives the EPA. Think of the EPA as Al Gore turned into a bureacracy. To them any debate is over.

    Thankfully, we have thoughtful forums such as yours that provide objective discussion about issues such as this. Keep up the good work.



  1. Taking A Fresh Look At Coal | EPA Abuse

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