Retiring Outdated Coal Burning Plants

SELC is a leading voice urging utilities to consider the long-term economic benefits of retiring outdated plants and investing in cleaner and more cost-efficient technologies.


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SELC joins dozens questioning EPA delay in clean water protections More »

SELC Senior Attorney Frank Holleman testified this week at the only hearing scheduled by the Environmental Protection Agency on an indefinite delay of clean water protections. At issue are the federal Effluent Limitations Guidelines, which dictate how many pollutants like mercury, arsenic, and selenium power plants can discharge into the nation’s streams and rivers.

“No community in the Southeast is asking for less protection from coal ash pollution,” said Holleman during his testimony. “This proposal to weaken clean water protections against coal ash pollution is a creation of Washington lobbyists, and this proposal is the worst form of special interest regulation.”

The guidelines were finalized in 2015 following 5 years of study and public input. EPA estimates, if implemented, the 2015 would reduce power plant pollution by about 1.4 billion pounds per year.

If EPA successfully delays implementation of the rule – a delay that was initiated at power companies’ request – the nation will be relying on rules created in 1982, when much less was known about the health problems caused by these pollutants.

Read more about the hearing from U.S. News & World Report.

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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.