The future dims for coal

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Thursday, January 13, 2011

The year 2011 has hardly begun, and already the news is bleak about coal, the No. 1 commodity that railroads carry. Last year, not a single new coal-fired power plant went online in the U.S. Now, what is soon to become the nation’s largest electric utility has publicly stated it wants to move away from coal. That utility is Duke Energy, which just announced its deal to buy Progress Energy. The two utilities are centered in the Carolinas.

According to Reuters, Duke and Progress have already announced plans to close coal plants producing 3,400 megawatts of electricity. Once merged, says Reuters, the combined company will still have other older coal plants with 3,500 MW and no pollution controls, making them primary targets for additional closures. True, Duke and Progress have several new coal plants under construction. But their focus going forward will be on nuclear and gas-fired utilities.
And here’s the scary part: This same analysis by Reuters quotes Black & Veatch, a global engineering and construction company, as saying 44,000 MW of coal-fired generation in the eastern half of the U.S. will be closed within a few years. Folks, that’s a lot of hopper cars.
Part of the pressure on utilities to abandon coal comes from a little-noticed initiative by the Environmental Protection Agency. A decade ago, it ruled that mercury and other hazardous air pollutants coming from coal-fired plants must be treated by scrubbers. But when the agency did little to enforce that judgment, it was sued by environmental groups and agreed in 2009 issue regulations for scrubbers to be installed by 2015. Those regs are to be issued this year. Separately, EPA is also revising standards for controlling sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide emitted by coal-fired plants in 27 Eastern states.
The Eastern U.S. in particular is pockmarked by scores of aging coal-fired electricity generators. Many of them are small, and retrofitting them with expensive scrubbers doesn’t make economic sense. I pointed all this out in a TRAINS column last July, and the reaction by railroads was a big, unexcited yawn. Maybe it’s time to sit up. — Fred W. Frailey

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