The largest coal-fired power plant in the western United States might be offline by the end of 2019, decades ahead of schedule.
The Navajo Generating Station (NGS), located in the LeChee chapter of the Navajo Nation, near Page, Arizona, supplies coal-fired electricity to Arizona and Nevada. It also nearly single-handedly pumps water through the Central Arizona Project (CAP), a 336-mile (541-kilometer) aqueduct system that carries water uphill from a lake in northwest Arizona to central and southern cities like Phoenix and Tucson.
The plant's consortium of owners originally announced in January 2017 that it may not renew its lease when it expired in 2019. If they'd gone that route, they would have had to start dismantling the plant by the end of 2017. However, the owners updated their plans in November 2017, announcing instead that the plant will continue operating through 2019.
"The owners made the difficult decision in February to end their participation in NGS when the current lease term ends in 2019 after it became clear that current and forecasted low natural gas prices had made coal generation there uneconomical," according to a press release.
Could that change, again, depending on what happens regarding the Trump administration's proposed overhaul of federal pollution restrictions on coal-burning power plants like NGS? The new plan — dubbed the Affordable Clean Energy rule — would effectively erase the pollution controls on coal-fired power plants put into place by the Obama administration and the Clean Power Plan. One of the Affordable Clean Energy rule's most significant changes would allow states to decide how much to cut emissions while restricting other things states can do to promote efficiency at coal plants.
The High Costs of Coal
U.S. coal power has been on a steady decline for at least a decade. Data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration show that of the 616 coal-fired plants in operation in 2005, more than half (61 percent) were closed by 2016, leaving 381 online. In the electric-utility sector specifically, operators closed 35 percent of their coal-fired power plants in that period.
Jeremy Richardson, a senior energy analyst in the climate and energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, says coal's decline is partly due to the falling costs of renewables.
"Coal is in a state of severe decline. We can’t see coal making a dramatic comeback, even if the EPA were abolished entirely," he writes in an email. "[F]or the last three consecutive years, renewables like wind and solar have accounted for more than half of capacity additions."
But coal-fired plants are the country's largest individual emitters of CO2, sulfur-dioxide and mercury. Other airborne byproducts include arsenic, lead and nitrogen oxides. According to Bobby Magill on Climate Central, the Tennessee Valley Authority closed three coal-fired power plants in 2011 primarily due to strict EPA regulations.
According to the Navajo Generating Station website, of the $650 million it cost to build the plant in the early '70s, $200 million went toward pollution-control systems. In the '90s, the plant spent $420 million on new sulfur-dioxide scrubbers, and put $45 million into nitrogen-oxide reductions between 2009 and 2011.
And if the Affordable Clean Energy rule becomes the mandate, its weaker regulations could be just what a few coal plants like NGS need to survive. But those changes will likely lead to more pollution and cost lives, according to the EPA's own analysis. The agency's findings say the relaxed regulations will create more pollution causing as many as 1,400 premature deaths every year by 2030 and up to 15,000 new cases of upper respiratory problems.
However, relaxing emissions is not the problem for most coal plants, says Scott Harelson, spokesperson for the NGS consortium.
The Fracking Factor
"While environmental and regulatory uncertainties are a part of the owners' assessment, the most significant factor being considered at this time is the economics of coal costs compared to the costs of other resources such as natural gas," Harelson writes in an email.
Coal and natural gas dominate in the U.S. electricity market (followed by nuclear, hydropower and biomass, in that order). Natural gas topped coal for the first time ever in April 2015, about 10 years after utilities started fracking their way to previously untapped natural-gas reserves.
Around 2005, cheap natural gas began flooding the energy market. By 2016, the price had reached 18-year lows. The EIA reports that in March 2016, power generators paid about $16 per megawatt-hour (MWh) of natural gas and between $21 and $23 per MWh of coal.
While utilities were closing 27 percent of their coal-fired plants, they were opening 10 percent more natural-gas-fired ones, which emit about half as much CO2 as coal.
It's far from a perfect solution, environmentally. Methane leaks may be a problem in gas-fired plants. And according to William Wentz, Washington State University professor emeritus in engineering, fracking is a huge question mark.
"Fracking's true environmental costs are not fully known, but we do know that earthquakes associated with fracking and waste water have increased dramatically as fracking has increased," Wentz writes, adding, "We must stop fracking."
An Inevitable End
Were we to stop fracking — and scrap the Clean Power Plan for the Affordable Clean Energy rule — coal is still unlikely to reverse course.
It's not just environmental. In China, where coal generated about 64 percent of electrical power in 2014, the government has been hurriedly closing coal-fired power plants in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai. Emissions from coal-fired plants contributed to about 1.23 million premature deaths in China in 2010, costing the country about 13 percent of gross domestic product in "lost economic activity," writes Conor Gaffey on Newsweek. China announced in 2016 it wants to reduce its coal-power consumption by 2 percent by 2020.
France aims to be completely off the fuel by 2023, the U.K. by 2025, and Canada and Finland by 2030. As of December 2016, the EU council is considering new emissions limits that would effectively remove coal-fired power plants from the EU energy supply.
Oregon, the first U.S. state to ban coal power, set a 2035 deadline for a coal-free energy market. California, which plans to be coal-free by 2026, has already banned the transport and export of coal through the state.
Wentz can't see coal power making a comeback. It's an outdated technology. And so-called "clean coal" power generation, a misnomer to begin with, also turns out to be absurdly expensive. At this point, utilities are better off with renewables.
"We have not gone back to the horse and buggy or the slide rule," he writes. "Persons employed in coal industries should be re-trained for careers in sustainable energy or other emerging fields.
"My grandfather's job as a lamplighter (natural gas street lights circa 1900) became obsolete within a few years [of the advent of electricity]. He made a successful career change to grocer," Wentz writes.