This U.S. Power Plant Shows Why Coal Is Dying, Won't Make a Comeback

Steam and smoke billow from the Navajo Generating Station, the biggest coal-fired power plant in the U.S. Its located Page, Arizona, and its future is uncertain, reflecting a larger trend about coal-fired power in the U.S. Paul Souders/Getty Images

The largest coal-fired power plant in the western United States might be offline by the end of 2017, more than 20 years ahead of schedule. And the Clean Power Plan has little to do with it.

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 announced in January it may not renew its lease when it expires in 2019. Should they go that route, they would have to start dismantling the plant this year to be out on time.

The old plan was to renew the lease, slowly reduce operations and close shop by 2044. However, reports Ryan Randazzo on AZ Central, “it has become apparent [to the owners] that the cost of running the plant is now higher than simply buying power from natural-gas plants.”

The High Costs of Coal

“Coal is in a state of severe decline. We can’t see coal making a dramatic comeback, even if the EPA were abolished entirely.”
Jeremy Richardson, Senior Energy Analyst , Climate and Energy Program, Union of Concerned Scientists

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 619 coal-fired plants in operation in 2005, 31 percent were closed by 2015, leaving 427 online. In the electric-utility sector specifically, operators closed 27 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.

"[F]or the last three consecutive years, renewables like wind and solar have accounted for more than half of capacity additions," Richardson writes in an email.

State and federal emissions standards haven't helped coal, either. 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 air-quality regulations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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.

But there's nothing to do about the carbon dioxide. The plant currently ranks third in U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions from a single source, according to AZ Central. Magill says it's seventh in CO2.

The NGS faces more expensive upgrades. But that's not the big problem, 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 lose the air-quality standards, and scrap the Clean Power Plan intended to help the U.S. meet its CO2-reduction commitment under the Paris Climate Act — coal is still unlikely to reverse course. (And were we to keep the Clean Power Plan, the U.S is still unlikely to meet its commitment under the Paris Climate Act.)

"Coal is in a state of severe decline," writes Richardson. "We can't see coal making a dramatic comeback, even if the EPA were abolished entirely."

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.

The owners of the Navajo Generating Station expect to reveal its fate in early 2017. NV Energy has already announced it will leave the consortium when the lease is up in 2019. 

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