Since the beginning of November, environmentalists and health activists in the United States have enjoyed a string of victories against coal-fired power plants—the single largest source of carbon pollution in the country. Nationwide coal-fired power plants produce 30% of US carbon emissions, and meet about half of the nation’s electricity demand. However that may be changing, as new coal projects are canceled and utilities announce the retirement of existing coal plants. At a time when the US in unlikely to pass national climate legislation soon, the shift away from coal is one of the most significant recent developments in the fight against climate change.
Coal is the most carbon-intensive of traditional fossil fuels, emitting more global warming pollution into the air for every unit burned than either oil or natural gas. Coal plants are also a major source of smog, acid rain, and toxic mercury emissions, meaning retiring existing plants will have a positive effect on public health and on air and water quality. For this reason both environmentalists and health groups have set their sites on closing as many coal plants as possible in the United States, and replacing them with cleaner energy sources. These efforts are now paying off, with recently announced coal plant closures likely providing a preview of more to come.
Early last month, clean energy activists won a major victory with the announcement that the utility Arizona Public Service Company plans to close the three dirtiest coal-burning units at the Four Corners Power Plant. Located on the Navajo Nation, the Four Corners Plant is one of the most polluting coal plants in the country, and the single biggest source of nitrogen oxide emissions in the United States. New federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules meant to curb nitrogen oxide pollution helped spur the partial closure decision at Four Corners, as the Arizona Public Service Company decided it would be more economical to shift to cleaner energy sources than pay for new pollution capturing equipment.
Less than two weeks after that, the East Kentucky Power Cooperative canceled its plans to build a new coal plant in Kentucky’s Clark County. Rather than build the 278 megawatt Smith Coal Plant, the power co-op has entered into an agreement with environmental groups, promising to withdraw its application to build the plant and instead investigate renewable energy options. “The news of not only the plant being canceled but also opportunities for collaboration with the co-ops [on clean energy] is a breath of fresh air!” said Steve Wilkins of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a group that worked to defeat the coal plant proposal.
Other utilities and state governments are also making a shift away from coal. In November the eastern utility Dominion announced new EPA rules will prompt it to by 2017 at the latest close two of its coal plants—the State Line Plant in Indiana, and the Salem Harbor Plant in Massachusetts. Meanwhile in Colorado, the state Public Utilities Commission on Thursday decided to retire over 900 megawatts of coal power over the next several years, including every coal-fired unit in the greater Denver area. This move in Colorado was prompted partly passage of a state law, the Clean Air Clean Jobs Act, which encourages investments in renewable energy.
Finally in Oregon, environmental groups like the Sierra Club have been pushing for two years to close the Boardman Coal Plant, the only coal-fired power plant in the state. On Thursday, responding to citizen pressure, Oregon’s Environmental Quality Commission adopted rules meant to close the plant sometime between 2011 and 2020. The plant’s utility owner, Portland General Electric, wants to keep the Boardman facility open until 2020, but environmental groups will continue pushing for an earlier date. “The Sierra Club is glad to see [state regulators] recognize that this dirty and dangerous coal plant may need to shut down much earlier than 2020 and has provided a path forward for earlier closure than the 2020 date,” said Robin Everett of the Oregon Sierra Club.
With close to six hundred existing coal plants in the United States, the fight to transition to cleaner sources of electricity is a long way from being over. According to Mary Anne Hitt of the Sierra Club’s national Beyond Coal campaign, writing on Thursday about some recent victories against coal plants, “Coal is coming down, which in turn opens up the market place, and clean energy is stepping in. The path forward is clear, the West is headed towards clean energy.”
Photo credit: Michael Hicks