Closing Down Coal Plants

Why shutting down 20 boilers nationwide could herald big changes for our energy future.
Coal train photo by Doug Wertman

American coal train.

Photo by Doug Wertman.

In April, states on both sides of the country made progress toward a coal-free future, with plans to close down more than 20 coal-fired boilers in the United States by 2025. These measures to reduce greenhouse gases may signal big changes for the nation’s energy future.

In the Pacific Northwest, the closures highlight concern for limiting air pollutants produced by coal-powered electrical plants—both Oregon and Washington have committed to going coal-free. Groups like the Sierra Club and Climate Solutions helped to spearhead the anti-coal campaign, and worked closely with Governor Christine Gregoire, the power company TransAlta, and labor unions to negotiate a transition that was fair and sustainable.

The resulting Washington State Senate Bill 5769 requires the phase-out of the TransAlta energy plant, the only coal-powered operator in the state. Additionally, the bill requires that TransAlta provide $55 million for pollution control, energy efficiency and local job creation. Oregon’s only coal-fired power plant, run by Portland General Electric Co., is scheduled to close by 2020.

With the proposal of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards under The Clean Air Act, the EPA will be able to regulate coal-fired power plants on a national level. The D.C. Court of Appeals ordered that these regulations, which will require many plants to install new pollution-curbing technology, be finalized by November.

According to the EPA, these measures will dramatically cut emissions of mercury, arsenic, and other toxins, preventing as many as 17,000 premature deaths a year. K.C. Golden, policy director at Climate Solutions, said that the agreements made in Washington state wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for the regulation, due to the low market price of coal.

“It’s not until you start to properly and fairly account for and internalize these mining, air, and climate costs that coal becomes uncompetitive,” Golden said. “The EPA’s role in administering the Clean Air Act and cleaning up these plants is absolutely vital.”

In the Southeast, the federally owned Tennessee Valley Authority came to an agreement with the EPA in April to shut down 18 of its oldest coal-fired boilers in Tennessee and Alabama. The deal also requires TVA to provide $350 million for clean energy projects, a majority of which must be energy efficiency initiatives.

Golden said that the recent successes are not only real achievements for environmental advocates, but also for local businesses, investors, and labor groups—who are on the ground, making the alternatives work.

“Most folks get that fossil fuel dependence is a really bad idea in the long run,” Golden said. “What we’re still working to prove is that we can do without it, and that we can power strong, sustainable economies with cleaner fuels. And there are a whole lot of partners in the campaign to make that true, well beyond just the environmental community.”

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