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Planned Coal-Power Closings Won’t Cut CO2 Much

The electric power industry’s plan to retire more than 10% of its coal-fired generators within a decade will do almost nothing to reduce the nation’s emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide, a USA TODAY analysis finds.

Planned coal-power closings

The 140 slated retirements — mostly small, old generating units in the Midwest and South — account for only 4% of all CO2 emitted last year by U.S. power plants. In fact, not one ranks among the top 100 units for carbon emissions and only 12 are among the 475 units that comprise the top 10% of emitters, according to a review of 2013 federal data.

These findings show that cutting carbon emissions enough to meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s 30% national target by 2030 will probably require many more coal retirements and lock in the nation’s energy shift toward natural gas and renewable power.

Coal-fired facilities are a particular target, because many are old — the average age is 42 — and dirty. They account for three-fourths of all CO2 emitted by U.S. power plants, which are the largest source of the nation’s carbon pollution.

The EPA proposal unveiled last week, a major part of President Obama’s plan to fight climate change, does not require states to close any particular coal plant but assumes more retirements. By 2020, It says coal facilities could produce 27% less power nationwide and 35% less in Appalachia. That is twice the amount it says could be vulnerable without the new carbon limit.

Yet the nation’s biggest coal plants, typically its largest CO2 emitters, are unlikely to be closed anytime soon, because “there just isn’t a cost-effective replacement yet,” says Jeffrey Holmstead, a lobbyist for coal-fired power plants at the Bracewell & Giuliani law firm in Washington.

That’s why the EPA expects coal plants will remain a major, though declining, power provider. By 2030, it forecasts these facilities, which generated 37% of U.S. electricity in 2012 — down from 52% in 2000 — will produce 30% of the nation’s power.

The rule could have a major impact on jobs. The coal industry could lose 35,000 to 38,000 “job years” — the equivalent of a full-time job for one year — by 2030, but more than 100,000 could be created in the energy-efficiency sector, according to the EPA’s impact analysis. Where in the country these jobs will be lost or added remains to be seen.

“It’s too early for anyone to know precisely the impact,” says Vicki Arroyo, executive director of the Georgetown Climate Center, a non-profit group that promotes policies to fight climate change. She says the proposal, which will take a few years to finalize, will be rolled in over the next 15 years.

Even without the new EPA rule, coal is struggling. Its biggest challenge is competing with low prices for natural gas as new drilling techniques bring a surge in its production. It faces other EPA regulation, including a cap on mercury emissions that will take effect next year.

As a result, the number of coal-fired power plants fell more than 11% from 2002 to 2012, according to the Energy Information Administration. Each plant has one or more generating units, and at the end of 2012, there were 1,308 units at 557 plants.

The upcoming unit retirements, slated to occur by 2021, are clustered in a few states, EIA data show. Ohio has the most, nearly one-sixth of the total, followed by Indiana, Tennessee, Georgia, Virginia, Alabama and West Virginia.

These retiring units — though relatively small compared with remaining generators — have an average capacity that’s nearly 50% larger than those that were closed in 2010, 2011 and 2012.

American Electric Power, one of the nation’s largest utilities, will retire about two dozen units by the end of 2016 and estimates a net loss of 780 jobs, according to spokeswoman Melissa McHenry. Duke Energy, the largest U.S. electric power company, will retire 16 units. Duke’s spokesman Chad Eaton says “it’s too soon” to estimate job loss.

“It’s going to take us a while to figure out” which additional plants may be retired because of the new EPA carbon proposal, says John McManus, AEP’s vice president of environmental services. “Ultimately, it’s a state-driven program,” he says of the EPA plan, which gives states options to meet their varying emissions targets.

Recognizing that coal-fired facilities emit more carbon than other power plants, the EPA generally sets lower reduction targets for states reliant on coal than those with a more diversified energy mix. For example, West Virginia’s 2030 target is 20% while New York’s is 44%.

States can meet their targets by requiring efficiency upgrades at coal plants, creating programs to save energy in homes and businesses or using more cleaner-burning natural gas as well as zero-carbon renewable sources such as solar, wind and nuclear.

USA TODAY’s analysis suggests states will need to go well beyond the planned coal retirements to reach their targets. It finds that a small share of facilities account for the bulk of carbon emissions from power plants.

The top 100 emitters — all coal — account for only 2% of generating units but 25% of total plant emissions. They are located predominantly in five states. Texas has the most, 19, followed by Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Alabama and Georgia.

The top 10% of emitters, which include 475 generating units that are mostly coal-fired, account for a much bigger share of carbon released from power plants — 69%.

Future plant retirements will be decided on a “case-by-base basis” that will depend largely on each area’s price for natural gas, says Pat Knight of Synapse Energy Economics, a consulting firm that works with environmental and consumer groups. Given those prices and a slew of EPA rules, he estimates it could be cheaper to retire than continue operating 73% to 95% of coal capacity, based on 2012 numbers.

The biggest single way to reduce carbon emissions is to cut coal use, says Dallas Burtraw, an expert on electricity markets at Resources for the Future, a Washington-based research group. In fact, according to EIA data, U.S. coal plants have cut carbon emissions 21% since 2005, but that’s mainly because they cut generation 21% at the same time.

This drop in coal generation largely explains the overall 10% decline in CO2 emissions from power plants since 2005, the year used as the baseline for the 30% national reduction target.

Burtraw says coal plants have installed scrubbers that have dramatically lowered the emissions of sulfur dioxide and other air pollutants — but not carbon dioxide. He says plants can slightly lower CO2 emissions with efficiency measures such as installing digital controls but can achieve significant cuts only with costly technology that captures and stores carbon.

Such technology is not in use at any U.S. power plant but will get its debut at Southern Co.’s new coal-fired facility in Kemper County, Miss. This plant, which aims to capture 65% of its carbon emissions and store them underground, was slated to open last month but has encountered cost overruns and other setbacks delaying its debut until May 2015.

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