USA: Jim Ross: Lights are dimming for coal-fired power plants

Last month, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division denied a request to extend the construction permit for a new power plant. The project had been dormant since 2016. The agency’s decision effectively killed the last remaining proposed coal-fired power plant in the United States. As of now, no new coal-fired generating capacity is being considered, according to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Plant Washington, as the project was known, would have been built near the town of Sandersville, southeast of Atlanta and about halfway between Mason and Savannah, by a consortium of utilities.
Plant Washington would have been capable of producing about 850 megawatts of power. That’s less than a third of what the Amos plant in Putnam County can produce, and it would have cost about $2.1 billion. The project was proposed in 2008, right as the natural gas industry boomed because of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing.

In an unrelated matter, the company owning the most technologically advanced coal-fired plant in the Eastern United States filed for bankruptcy protection this week. Longview Power LLC, which owns and operates the Longview Power Plant near Maidsville, West Virginia, north of Morgantown, filed a prepackaged bankruptcy plan to restructure its debt and allow the plant’s secured lenders to become its owners.

In its statement announcing the filing, Longview Power attributed the plant’s problems to “substantially lessened demand for electricity due to long-term power-pricing pressure caused by cheap natural gas, an unseasonably warm winter, and the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic impact, which have severely depressed power prices.”

The plant continues to operate, and the filing does not affect plans to build additional generating capacity at Maidsville. Those plans are for natural gas and solar generating operations.
Longview is a merchant plant, meaning it sells its power on the wholesale market. It’s not as protected as a utility-owned plant such as Amos, although market forces continue to affect those plants, too. Markets are making coal-fired power plants less able to compete.

West Virginia is part of the PJM Interconnection territory, a power management system stretching from New Jersey and Virginia into central Kentucky. As of Thursday morning, coal was producing only about 18% of the power used in the region. Gas was providing about 35% and nuclear plants about 32%.

Those percentages can vary by time of day and according to weather. Nuclear plants cannot be turned off and on easily. When demand spikes because of weather, coal is often called upon. Power markets are complex, but in simple terms the lowest-cost plants are called on first to supply expected demand. That’s why gas plants are being built as coal plants are shut down (or “retired,” as they say in the industry).

As has been noted here before, the coal fleet is aging. It will need significant investments in the near future if it is to continue in service past 2040. Generators must be a certain size to justify those investments, and with each year it seems that size gets bigger and bigger. The problem will be for the midsize plants to justify their existence as markets and political pressures edge them toward retirement. The future is always in motion and is hard to predict. The smaller and older coal-fired generating units are retired. Utilities want out of the generating business. Instead of controlling the process from the mine to the meter, they would rather buy power at the lowest cost and focus their efforts on delivering it. Unless something changes, the future for coal-generated power looks to get worse before it gets better.