Retiring Outdated Coal Burning Plants

SELC is a leading voice urging utilities to consider the long-term economic benefits of retiring outdated plants and investing in cleaner and more cost-efficient technologies.


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Debilitating federal budget cuts back on the table More »

In the proposed federal budget released today, the Trump administration recommends crippling cuts to essential federal protections in many areas, though few are as extreme as what is proposed for the Environmental Protection Agency. If Congress was to approve the budget as proposed, overall funding for EPA would drop by 31 percent.

The Southeast will be one of the regions most affected by reductions at EPA since state environmental enforcement agencies, which are expected to pick up any federal slack, have been managing underfunded budgets for years. The budget released today takes two hits at enforcement duties by cutting grants to states for this work by 45 percent, while at the same time slicing 24 percent for the federal budget for the same programs. The administration’s budget also cuts funding for Superfund cleanups, a program touted by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, by more than 30 percent.

"The reckless cuts in the President’s budget put a bulls eye on communities in the South, where systematic rollbacks to local safeguards and budgets have left the federal government as a critical backstop to protect the air we breathe and water we drink,” said Nat Mund, SELC Legislative Director. “These draconian budget cuts will cripple the government’s ability to enforce basic protections, jeopardize critical transit projects, endanger the National Parks we love, and hurt local economies by eliminating jobs. Congress needs to cast this ridiculous and backward budget aside and start over with a focus on safeguarding our families, communities, and environment.”

The administration’s reported cuts at EPA alone would threaten the following essential services, among others:

  • Cleanup: EPA has coordinated and funded the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay, an economic boon for the region and a beautiful and special place for residents and visitors alike. The budget blueprint eliminates all federal funding for this long-needed program with broad bipartisan support and others like it across the nation.
  • Enforcement: The proposed budget cuts critical enforcement funding by 24 percent. When North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality was under criminal investigation for its cozy relations with Duke Energy and not enforcing the law, the Environmental Protection Agency stepped in and conducted the criminal investigation that resulted in Duke Energy pleading guilty 18 times to nine Clean Water Act crimes at its leaking, unlined coal ash sites across the state.
  • Oversight: After substantial and systemic failures of Alabama’s water pollution permitting program and the agency’s abysmal enforcement of clean water safeguards, the EPA stepped in and worked closely with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management to make improvements to protect human health and the environment for the citizens of Alabama.

Other agencies facing daunting cuts include the Department of Interior, Department of Energy, and Department of Transportation. Consider the U.S. Forest Service, a part of the Department of Agriculture. Deep cuts to Forest Service budgets would hit our region particularly hard. Our southeastern national forests are among the most visited in the country, supporting recreation, hunting and fishing, rural economic development, and clean drinking water for downstream communities. The proposed budget would devastate some of the Forest Service's most critical and popular functions, including:

  • dramatically reducing maintenance of trails, roads, and trailheads, leading to lost access and severe impacts to water quality
  • crippling our ability to add new lands to the national forest
  • slashing funding to fight wildfires and protect communities
  • reneging on a commitment to rural communities, cutting funds they rely on to support schools and emergency services.

In contrast to the administration’s talk of boosting infrastructure nationwide, the latest federal budget proposal takes big swings at funding for transit projects that would fall under this umbrella. Federal funding has been extremely important for successful transit projects throughout the Southeast. These proposed budget cuts would eliminate all new transit funding, threatening initiatives like those below.

  • Voters in Atlanta approved a sales tax increase in November 2016 that is expected to raise $2.5 billion for expanded transit service in the City. However, the list of transit projects needed in the city is expected to cost more than that amount and was based on the expectation that the federal government would continue to partner with local governments in building these projects.
  • In North Carolina, Wake County voters passed a half-cent sales tax last fall to fund an ambitious new transit plan that will include expanded bus service, bus rapid transit, and commuter rail. The plan has been heavily supported by the business community, which knows that a strong transit system is imperative for attracting the highly skilled workers it needs. Without federal investment, however, the plan will not come to fruition.

Numerous other plans and projects throughout the Southeast, such as Nashville’s nMotion Plan and the Richmond Region’s Transit Vision Plan, will require federal transit funds to make them happen. Additionally, all long distance Amtrak service would end under the Trump administration’s budget proposal, meaning several states in our region would have no Amtrak connection.

The administration’s proposal will now move to Congress, where members of both chambers have the chance to edit the proposal. When the President recently presented a similarly drastic budget proposal for the current fiscal year, Congress rejected it, providing mostly level funding for federal services.

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The Southeast's historical dependence on coal-fired power plants has resulted in air pollution that hurts our communities and means our region  is one of the world’s largest contributors to climate change.  As pollution regulations undergo a long-overdue update, utilities must decide whether to retire old and inefficient coal-burning units or to spend hundreds of millions to over a billion dollars upgrading them. But the cost doesn’t stop there.

What is the true cost of coal-burning plants?

Burning coal produces staggering amounts of air and water pollution harmful to human health. Much of the coal burned in plants in the Southeast is obtained through mountaintop removal coal mining, a devastating practice that has destroyed countless mountains, forests, and streams. Coal burning also generates vast quantities of coal ash waste that contains dangerous heavy metals—toxic pollution that is often stored in unlined pits on or near the plant sites. Many of these sites leak—some silently seep into our rivers and groundwater; some fail catastrophically, like the Kingston spill of 2008 or Dan River in 2014. Read more about our work to cleanup coal ash waste in the Southeast.

Retirement more economically—and environmentally—feasible

SELC has been a leading voice urging utilities to consider the long-term economic benefits of retiring outdated plants and investing in cleaner and more cost-efficient technologies, such as energy efficiency, solar, and wind. As the price of coal continues to rise, we are working to improve and expand incentive programs to encourage utilities to adopt these cheaper alternatives. Meanwhile, the price of energy efficiency and renewable energy continues to decline as markets open and develop, allowing these clean energy sources to compare favorably with and outcompete coal generation on a pure cost basis.

Working for cleaner energy through retirements

Ten years ago, there were 246 coal-fired units generating electric power in our region, and nine more huge units were planned. Today, 126 of the existing units- a third of the total coal capacity in our six states- have already retired or will retire by 2020, with most of them recently closed, and seven of the proposed units never got off the ground. SELC has plated an instrumental role in securing plans or legally binding retirement commitments and in turning aside most of the proposed new plants, participating in utility planning processes and working with state utility commissions. As a result, carbon emissions from power generation in our region declined 29 percent in the past ten years.