Pursuing the Local Coal Plant Story

April 11, 2017

TipSheet: Pursuing the Local Coal Plant Story

Coal-burning electric power plants are big news these days for environmental journalists, and there are probably a few near you that make interesting stories.

During much of the 20th Century, coal produced some 50 percent or more of U.S. electric power; today, the share has fallen to below 34 percent. As the Trump administration tries to bring back coal as the keystone fuel of the electric power grid, individual plants become pawns on a chessboard.

A major target for Administrator Scott Pruitt at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is undoing former President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan — his signature initiative for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from coal plants. But even if Pruitt can undo the plan, that will not bring back coal.

Wherever you are, your regional coal plants are probably caught up in this story. Your state may be implementing the Clean Power Plan or (just as likely) resisting it. But your state’s regulators and utility execs probably have already formed a vision of those coal plants’ future.

Xcel Energy's coal-fired Sherco power plant in Becker, Minn., is the largest in the state. Built in the 1970s, it will be retired by 2026. Photo: MPCA Photos, Flickr Creative Commons

There are almost 1,500 coal-burning electric power plants in the United States, and they emit around 2,000 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. EPA publishes a map showing their geographic concentration. In recent decades, total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions have run between 5,000 and 6,000 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.

Locating your local plants

Which plants? There are a few ways to find them. Facility-level data on greenhouse gas emitting power plants can be found in EPA’s online, searchable FLIGHT database (includes non-coal plants). This information comes in via EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory and GHG Reporting Program.

Another database source for coal plants is the Energy Information Administration. The EIA collects monthly data from electric power plants of all fuel types via Form EIA-923. This includes the exact amount of coal burned. You can download the whole database for each year in spreadsheet form. Schedule 8 of the database gives emissions data for each plant annually.

One thing you really want to know about each coal plant is when it was built, because the rules are different for old plants as compared to new ones.

But new plants are really not being built in the United States. And for many years, the oldest coal plants were grandfathered under the Clean Air Act, and did not have to install modern pollution control equipment like scrubbers. Even five years ago, a large fraction of U.S. coal plants lacked such equipment. Now many of them, having run past their design lifespan, are closing.

Digging deeper with databases

Once you have identified the coal plants in your area, there are ways to find out more about them. Every fossil power plant has to have an emissions permit (or several) under the Clean Air Act, and information about those permits can be found in two major EPA databases.

The EPA database called ICIS-Air is searchable and online, but hardly easy to use. If you know a facility’s name, you can search on that, but given how often plants are sold and renamed, that can be tricky.

One good search tactic is to enter the NAICS industrial category code of 221112 (for “fossil electric power generation”) in combination with the state or county you are interested in.

The EPA database known as ECHO, for Enforcement and Compliance History Online, can give additional information about a particular plant’s air pollution violation and enforcement record — but not about carbon dioxide per se.

Check out the more advanced search interface. If you know the facility number of the plant you are interested in, you can go straight to that. ECHO allows you to focus on the bad actors, if that interests you.

Be aware also that it is usually the states which do the real permitting and enforcement of the Clean Air Act. Most state air pollution regulatory agencies keep their own databases, and these can be handy for your investigations.

Watch for regulation of non-CO2 pollutants too

The industry narrative is that regulatory pressure is the main thing forcing coal plants to close. That is largely untrue; it is more often that cheaper energy sources like gas and renewables are making coal plants less profitable.

Nonetheless, understanding the regulatory pressure on a particular coal plant will help you discern how soon it may be likely to close.

Carbon dioxide is hardly the only pollutant of concern. Is your plant in — or upwind of — a nonattainment area? You will want to know whether it is part of a State Implementation Plan.

Ultimately the data that may matter most is on coal plant retirements. None of the databases on retirements is perfect. One useful recent addition is the EIA’s Preliminary Monthly Electric Generator Inventory, which covers all fuel types, but includes retirements. Sourcewatch has a pretty good overview of coal plant retirements.

To find out more about your local or regional coal power situation, you probably want to know what electric utility or utilities serve your area and check in with them. Regional utilities own fleets of plants. Some regions are more dependent on coal than others. A big fraction of coal’s cost is transportation and economics vary with proximity to cheap coal sources.

You will also want to check in with environmental groups. The Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign is a hub of such activity, and may crop up in chapters in your area. Also try your state’s air pollution regulator. Although EPA’s press offices are rarely helpful to the press these days, you might also try the EPA regional office press contact.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 2, No. 15. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main pageSubscribe to the e-newsletter here.  And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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