Ken's Project Blog

August 20, 2011

Coal Power Plant Closings

Filed under: In The News — Ken @ 2:13 pm

Over at the Washington Post, Ezra Klein has a piece that seeks to allay concerns about coal-fired power generation plant closing by regurgitating a significant portion of the facts contained in a Congressional Research Report entitled: “EPA’s Regulation of Coal-Fired Power: Is a “Train Wreck” Coming?”

This is the crux of the argument, from Mr. Klein’s regurgitation of pages 28 and 29 of the CRS report:

CRS notes that many of the plants most affected by the new EPA rules were facing extinction anyway: “Many of these plants are inefficient and are being replaced by more efficient combined cycle natural gas plants, a development likely to be encouraged if the price of competing fuel—natural gas—continues to be low, almost regardless of EPA rules.”

Still, that’s a lot of plants. Won’t this wreak havoc on the grid? Not necessarily, the CRS report says, although the transition won’t be simple. For one, most of these plants don’t provide as much base load power as it appears on first glance — pre-1970 coal plants operating without emissions controls are in use, on average, only about 41 percent of the time. Second, the report notes that “there is a substantial amount of excess generation capacity at present,” caused by the recession and the boom in natural gas plants. Many of those plants can pitch in to satisfy peak demand. Third, electric utilities can add capacity fairly quickly if needed — from 2000 to 2003, utilities added more than 200 gigawatts of new capacity, far, far more than the amount that will be lost between now and 2017. [emphasis added]

So, let’s review, these older plants, the ones that will be shut down are in-efficient and are only used 41% of the time, but there is excess generation capacity at more efficient, cost-effective power generation plants already in place and besides, if industry wanted to, they could replace the plants slated top be shut down in advance of their being taken off-line. Got it?

So, the question I have is very simple – why are the utility companies EVER bringing their more expensive, less efficient, pre-1970 coal-fired power generators on-line IF, as claimed there already exists sufficient capacity in other, lower-cost, more efficient power generators already in-place? The obvious answer is “peak demand.” Peak demand is when these utilities choose to resort to their old coal-fired plants to meet the peak demands that exceed the generating capacity of the more cost-effective power generators.

And that 41% number is interesting to me – it may be a coincidence, but if we were to calculate the percentage fo the year that represents “on-peak” (1 PM to 9 PM, weekdays) and “mid-peak” (7 AM to 1 PM, weekdays) for power consumption as defined by one utility company we arrive at 41% (14 hours x 5 weekdays x 52 weeks divided by 24 hours/day x 365 days). In other words, it appears that these less-efficient, more expensive coal-fired plants that were built before 1970 are only to meet the consistent, predictable power demands during the hours of 7 AM to 9 PM on weekdays, yet we are expected to believe that there is enough generation capacity “int he system” to offset the need for these plants?

I dont’ think so – power company executives are not stupid – they wouldn’t choose to keep old coal-fired generation plants on-line if they didn’t have to – these plants, more correctly, the on-demand power they supply, are a necessary component of our daily power needs, and to take them off-line will require a massive investment on the part of the power companies to invest in replacement plants in advance of the coal-fired plant shutdown just to meet the normal, weekday power needs of their customers. The issue is that you can’t (as a practical matter) store electricity generated during off-peak hours for use during peak demand hours, and as inefficient as these old, coal-fired generators are, they are likely cheaper than scaling up the other, more efficient power generation plants to meet not only the baseline needs of their consumers, but also their peak demand needs since they will have too much generation capacity 59% of the time.

Sources: Getting ready for a wave of coal-plant shutdowns EPA’s Regulation of Coal-Fired Power: Is a “Train Wreck” Coming? Time-of-Day Program The Challenge for Green Energy: How to Store Excess Electricity


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