Retiring Outdated Coal Burning Plants

SELC is a leading voice urging utilities to consider the long-term economic benefits of retiring outdated plants and investing in cleaner and more cost-efficient technologies.


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What does the new Congress and administration mean for clean air and climate change? More »

The Clean Air Act has been a hugely successful public health law. Since it was adopted in 1970, the nation has seen huge reductions in pollution coinciding with major growth in the economy. The new federal administration and anti-environmental leaders in Congress threaten these advances, putting all of us—especially children and the elderly—at risk.

As long as there has been a Clean Air Act, every time an air pollution standard is set industry raises the specter of high costs and lost jobs. But again and again, this has been shown to be a false prediction; we have protected public health and the economy at the same time. For instance, in the South, since 1990 the average annual residential electricity bill has held essentially steady in real dollars, and as a percentage of median household income. Yet, emissions of pollutants that create smog and soot have plummeted on the order of 80-90 percent.

Currently, the fossil-fuel industry is claiming pollution reductions that curb climate change will bankrupt the economy. In reality, states across the country—including in the Southeast—are reducing pollution and enhancing jobs. In North Carolina, for example, we’ve seen an explosion in clean solar power, with the state ranked second nationally for the amount of solar electric capacity installed in 2015. This clean industry growth has translated into more than 206 solar companies employing 5,950 people in the state.

Unfortunately, the new Administration and incoming Congress are suggesting they may take actions that would turn back the clock on these advances and hamper our ability to effectively tap into these growth industries and safeguard our natural environment at the same time.

The most high profile, but far from the only, element of this strategy is the incoming administration’s vow to scrap the Clean Power Plan. This landmark rule sets statewide targets for carbon dioxide pollution from coal- and gas-fired power plants across the country. Given that the South is home to a large number of old, polluting coal-fired plants, without these mandatory state-based goals establishing a clear, long-term objective, it will be harder and more complicated to achieve the reductions necessary to clean up our air and cut greenhouse gas emissions.

The new administration also suggested they will reconsider the U.S. commitment to reduce greenhouse gas pollution under the 2016 Paris Climate agreement. Seen as a key tool to achieve international reductions in carbon pollution, its creation was bolstered by America’s leadership role. Any move by the U.S. to back away from that commitment could have disastrous global impacts.

SELC believes that everyone in the Southeast and beyond deserves to breathe clean air, drink clean water, and live in a healthy, prosperous environment. This belief drives our continued commitment to protecting the laws and policies that ensure those birthrights for all Americans. 

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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.