Coal-fired power plants provide approximately 44% of the electricity in the U.S. While many utilities are augmenting their sources for power with solar and wind generation, they have significant capital invested in coal-fired power plants. Over the years coal has been an affordable, reliable fuel source ready to produce electric power 24-7. In recent years Renewable Portfolio Standards (FPS) and carbon taxation have changed the long-term cost calculations for coal power. In 2008 coal-fired power plants emitted 2.55 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), making them a primary target for pending cap and trade and/or carbon taxation. Besides emitting CO2, coal-fired power plants also produce other harmful emissions to the environment, such as sulfur dioxides, nitrogen oxides, and mercury, resulting in pressure from the Environmental Protection Agency to clean their emissions.
There are well over 500 operational coal-fired power plants, the greatest contributors to air pollution and man-made CO2. Whether these plants plan to spend money on emission control, carbon capture, or both, they face significant costs for implementation. If they don’t do anything, they face significant taxation on their carbon emissions, or fines for polluting—perhaps even shutdown. Many are considering replacing coal.
Replacing Coal with Clean Energy
Utilities are replacing coal energy sources in the future, and they are reviewing all their options, including clean energy generation sources, such as solar, wind, nuclear, biomass or geothermal, as well as substantial construction costs for new gas-fired power plants. They need to maintain a certain amount of baseload capacity in their portfolios. Wind and solar, for example, cannot fully replace coal as energy sources for electric generation, as their energy streams are variable. On the other hand, gas-fired plants are still fossil-fuel based. Nuclear reactors are very expensive to build and pose safety concerns with operation and storage of waste materials.