Chart of the day: Coal power's decline

A record amount of coal power plant capacity will be retired this year. And the trend is expected to continue through 2016.

Not every aspect of the fossil fuels industry is experiencing the same kind of revival as offshore oil exploration . For example, a record 9 gigawatts of coal-fired power plant capacity is expected to be retired in the United States this year alone.

Power plant owners and operators say they expect to retire almost 27 gigwatts of capacity from 175 coal-fired generators between 2012 and 2016 -- more than four times greater than retirements in the previous five-year period, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.  In 2011, there were 1,387 coal-fired generators in the United States. The planned closures are equivalent to 8.5 percent of total 2011 coal-fired capacity.

About nine gigwatts of coal-fired capacity will retire this year, the largest one-year amount in the nation's history. That record isn't expected to stand for long. Nearly 10 GW of coal-fired capacity is expected to retire in 2015, the EIA said.

EIA data shows the closures will be concentrated in the mid-Atlantic states, namely Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and West Virginia. And the plants that do close will be, on average, larger in size than in previous years. Coal generators that retired between 2009 and 2011 had an average size of 59 megawatts. The average size of a coal-fired plant planned for retirement between 2012 and 2015 is 154 MW.

Some might blame the coal power plant closures on increasing regulations. The cost of compliance with existing and anticipated federal environmental regulations are a factor.

Natural gas has been a major disrupter to coal as well. The boom in shale gas production has driven natural gas prices lower. the variable costs of operating natural gas-fired capacity have fallen relative to those coal-fired plants, the EIA said.

While power plant owners prepare to pull the plug on some of their oldest, least efficient facilities, an effort is underway by the U.S. Department of Energy to keep some of them open. The DOE is funding new "clean coal" technologies that would retrofit existing power plants to be in compliance with pollution rules.

Photo: Flickr user Wigwam Jones, CC 2.0


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