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With MATS in Effect, Coal Unit Retirements Will Hit Peak in 2015

Approximately 4,600 megawatts (MW) of U.S. coal-fired generation has already retired this year through April and another 7,700 MW will close during the rest of 2015 as utilities work to comply with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) new Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, or MATS, which took effect last month.

This year’s closures represent about 4% of installed U.S. coal capacity and will make up a third of nationwide coal plant retirements between 2010 and 2015, an SNL Energy analysis showed. The pace of retirements eases in 2016, when units with one-year MATS compliance extensions finally close. Next year, nearly 7,300 MW of coal-based power will shut down. Retirements continue to taper off after that, with less than 7,000 MW slated between 2017 and 2022.

Assuming scheduled retirements proceed as planned, approximately 46,000 MW of U.S. coal capacity will be closed between 2012 and 2022. That number will almost undoubtedly grow as generators continue to decide the fate of their fossil fleets.

The average age of units closing between now and 2022 is 56 years, meaning that many are less efficient and have fewer environmental controls than the surviving coal fleet. “These generating units have provided the backbone of the American dream for decades,” American Electric Power (AEP) President and CEO Nick Akins said during an April 23 earnings call. “In the age of the word ‘coal’ being a four-letter word in some circles and not even mentioned among America’s resources, even though coal still is the predominant fuel, we want to say, ‘thank you, and job well done’ for those that understand what it takes to make our power system work.”

Ohio-based AEP is the single largest source of near-term reductions. It will shutter a little more than 6,500 MW of coal generation in 2015 and 2016 combined, most of it in West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky and Virginia. Much of AEP’s lost capacity will be replaced by renewable sources and energy efficiency.

AEP is refueling three units in Kentucky and Virginia with natural gas, but “we don’t have any new, large-scale baseload generation investments planned at this time,” AEP spokeswoman Melissa McHenry told SNL Energy on May 7. “We are expanding our renewable energy mix both through power purchase agreements and the construction of five new, utility-scale solar installations in Indiana and Michigan.”

Coal’s share of AEP’s capacity is expected to drop to 48% in 2026 from 61% now. Gas will stay relatively steady on a proportional basis, at 25% of AEP’s capacity in 2026 compared with 23% now. Renewables and energy efficiency together will provide about 21% of its electric output in 2026, up from 11% now. Nuclear will stay steady at 5% to 6%. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is the next biggest coal unit closer between 2015 and 2022, with nearly 5,000 MW scheduled to retire during the period. That total includes the 476-MW Widows Creek unit 7 in Alabama, which TVA recently announced it will retire no later than October.

“In recent years, we have diversified our mix so we are not overly dependent on any one fuel source, and we have more clean generation, including nuclear, hydro, natural gas, renewables and energy efficiency,” TVA President and CEO Bill Johnson said at a May 7 quarterly meeting with the utility’s board of directors.

TVA announced the closure of the last Widows Creek coal unit after the meeting, saying the move is needed to comply with the EPA’s new coal ash storage and handling rule. “The ash pond for the remaining operating unit will reach capacity as early as next spring,” Johnson said. “As a result, we will need to set a retirement date for the final unit earlier than we had planned.”

TVA’s coal closures will be partly offset by a new 1,150-MW nuclear reactor at its Watts Bar plant in Tennessee, which will be the first new U.S. nuclear generation added this century. Watts Bar unit 2 is about 98% complete, the utility said in a U.S. SEC filing this month.

marketwatchThe Dash to Gas

Of the nearly 26,400 MW of coal capacity closed or closing between 2015 and 2022, about 40% will be converted to burn other fuels, mainly natural gas. A little more than 11,000 MW of the retiring units will switch to gas, with a much smaller 335 MW converting to burn oil and 58 MW to biomass. Many of the conversions will be in the ReliabilityFirst Corp., or RFC, region of NERC, which includes parts of the mid-Atlantic and Midwest.

NRG Energy will perform many of the RFC gas conversions in the next two years. Gas already makes up about half of NRG’s installed generating capacity, and it plans to switch more than 5,600 MW of mostly coal-based power to gas across its U.S. service territory from the spring of 2015 through fall 2017. The coal-to-gas conversions include Avon Lake units 7 and 9 in Ohio; Dunkirk units 2-4 in New York; Shawville units 1-4 in Pennsylvania; Joliet units 6-8 in Illinois; and Big Cajun unit 2 in Louisiana.

The SERC Reliability Corp., covering the southeastern U.S., is the second-largest single NERC region for coal plant conversions, with gas the biggest beneficiary. Southern Co. subsidiary Alabama Power closed units 6 and 7 at its Gorgas plant and stopped using coal at units 1 and 2 of the Barry plant in April, when the EPA’s MATS rule took effect. Southern also retired nearly 2,000 MW in April across the Branch and McManus plants in Georgia and the Yates plant in Alabama.

Gas will succeed coal at many of Southern’s coal units. Unit 7 at Yates was scheduled to be repowered on gas on May 4, followed by unit 6 at the plant in mid-2015. By April 2016, Alabama Power will cease burning coal at units 1 and 2 of the Greene County plant and start operating them solely on gas.

Despite the already large drop in coal demand, Southern has made additional plans this year to reduce its dependence on the fuel. On April 23, subsidiary Mississippi Power Co. decided to retire units 1 and 2 at the Watson plant in Mississippi by July 1, to avoid environmental compliance costs. And in February, Southern’s Gulf Power Co. unit disclosed plans to retire coal capacity at units 1 and 2 of the Smith plant in Florida by the end of March 2016.

More coal closures could be announced after the EPA puts out its final rule for lowering carbon emissions from the power sector. The agency’s Clean Power Plan for existing plants sets state-specific greenhouse gas intensity reduction targets that are estimated to cut emissions by 30% from 2005 levels by 2030.

The final rule is expected by mid-summer 2015, with state implementation plans due a year later.

To find more details about U.S. power plants, go to SNL Energy’s Power Plant Briefing Book Search.