There’s no doubt coal is being replaced as a source of electricity. Recent events have reinforced that trend, but they shouldn’t mean coal will be eliminated entirely anytime soon.
As reported by the Associated Press last week, dozens of plants nationwide plan to stop burning coal this decade to comply with more stringent federal wastewater guidelines, according to state regulatory filings. A new wastewater rule requires power plants to clean coal ash and toxic heavy metals such as mercury, arsenic and selenium from their wastewater before it is dumped into streams and rivers. The rule is expected to affect 75 coal-fired power plants nationwide, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Those plants had an October deadline to tell their state regulators how they planned to comply, with options that included upgrading their pollution-control equipment or retiring their coal-fired generating units by 2028.
Also last week, HD Media’s Mike Tony reported that FirstEnergy, the electric utility that supplies most of northern West Virginia, is seeking approval from the Public Service Commission to build five utility-scale solar energy projects throughout its state service territory. The facilities would generate 50 megawatts of renewable energy, but the projects would not displace the company’s current levels of coal-fired generation capacity in accordance with a 2020 state law disallowing renewable energy facilities from doing so.
Utilities know there’s a market for renewables. Industrial and commercial customers want to distance themselves from fossil fuels, and they will pay to know that the electricity they pull from the grid comes from solar or wind sources.
The downside for coal-producing regions is that every kilowatt that comes from burning gas or from solar or wind sources is a kilowatt that does not come from coal. There is no indication the trend is about to reverse. Opposition to coal-fired power means no new coal plants are likely to be built in the United States in the foreseeable future, no matter how many are retired.
In some cases, retired coal plants could be demolished and replaced with solar farms. Those farms would produce less power than the coal plants, but the pollution concerns would be negligible.
Coal should remain on the grid in some form until battery storage technology can catch up with gains in solar and wind generation. As events of this year have shown, unexpected changes in power markets show that coal is necessary as a backup that can be called upon when other power sources have problems. Unlike other sources, coal can be stored on site, so it is less vulnerable to disruptions caused by weather or fuel delivery.
East of the Mississippi River, West Virginia is alone among states whose legislators and regulators protect coal as a power source. But as the 2028 deadline shows, their flexibility is limited as federal regulators add more environmental restrictions on coal-burning plants and as customers want assurance their electricity comes from renewable sources.