Retiring Outdated Coal Burning Plants

SELC is a leading voice urging utilities to consider the long-term economic benefits of retiring outdated plants and investing in cleaner and more cost-efficient technologies.


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Duke Energy proposes increasing carcinogens downstream in permit renewal More »

As part of its 2015 criminal plea agreement, Duke Energy admitted that bromide discharged into rivers and lakes from its coal ash operations have caused carcinogens to form in downstream drinking water systems. Some of these carcinogens are so dangerous that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has set their health protection goal at zero, meaning that people should not be exposed to any level of these pollutants.

In its filing, Duke Energy identified dozens of downstream drinking water systems that serve millions of people in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia that may be impacted by the company’s bromide discharges.

Yet instead of taking responsible action to halt these bromide discharges, Duke Energy is proposing to add even more bromides to its coal ash basins, through changes to its coal plant operations. Duke Energy claims that the additional bromides will reduce emissions of mercury from its smokestacks. The utility is choosing this bromide production despite the fact that other modern, widely-used technologies—such as baghouses—are available to control mercury emissions without causing carcinogens downstream. Baghouses are commonly used and collect particulate matter generated by industrial production.

This proposed additional bromide contamination is bad for families that count on clean drinking water; bad for businesses that require high-quality water; and bad for people living near Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds who would be forced to choose between contaminated well water and bromide-contaminated municipal water.

In comments submitted recently to the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, SELC urged the agency to require Duke Energy to excavate its coal ash basins that are leaking bromide into North Carolina’s rivers. The agency must also put limits on bromide that ensure protection of downstream water users, and it must require Duke Energy to use real pollution controls for mercury emissions, instead of turning a mercury pollution problem into a cancer-causing bromide problem. 

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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.