It’s Just Business (but FirstEnergy Blames Its Decisions on Clean Air Rules)

Twice in the last two weeks, FirstEnergy has announced it will shut down old coal-fired power plants – then tried to blame those business decisions on the clean air rules that protect us all from toxic pollution.

First, at the end of January, First Energy announced it would retire six coal-fired power plants in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland.

The company blamed those closures on new EPA regulations that will protect us from mercury, acid gases and other toxic air pollution – but FirstEnergy is going to retire the plants by September 1 of this year.

The compliance deadline for the new EPA rules isn’t for at least three years (2015 – with possible extensions to 2017). 

What’s more, FirstEnergy announced a decision to switch some of those six units from full-time to seasonal operation, and to temporarily mothball others, more than 16 months ago — before EPA even issued its proposal for the new rule.

Clearly, there’s more to the story than just EPA regulations.

Then, this week, First Energy announced it will close three more old coal plants in West Virginia. The company once again tried to pin the blame on EPA.

But the three plants in question were built between 1943 and 1960. They were built while Presidents Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower were in office. The oldest was built while we were still fighting World War II.

The plants are not closing just because of clean air regulations. They’re closing because they’re aging and inefficient, and because they are facing competition from natural gas.

Many factors contribute to the new utility investment cycle. They include:

  • Age – 59% of America’s coal fired power plants are over 40 years old, with many over 60 years old.

According to former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell:

In 1970, the [Clean Air Act] required that new sources meet tight emissions standards. At that time, it was assumed that electrical utility units had an average lifetime of 30 years.

  • Competition from Natural Gas – with increasing natural gas supplies and lower prices, the market is shifting to more efficient combined cycle natural gas generators over old, inefficient coal plants.

One industry analyst told the Wall Street Journal:

Inexpensive natural gas is the biggest threat to coal. Nothing else even comes close.

  • Low utilization –the older units are often small, inefficient, and operated only part-time. From a business perspective, it is not cost effective to keep paying the fixed costs needed to maintain them for limited operation. Energy efficiency and demand response programs are far more efficient ways of meeting these energy needs.

In its press release announcing the closings of the three West Virginia plants, First Energy itself points out:

[T]hese plants served mostly as peaking facilities, generating, on average, less than 1 percent of the electricity produced by FirstEnergy over the past three years.

  • Health and the Environment – it is not surprising that these old, inefficient power plants are also disproportionately higher emitters of pollutants, and often have not had modern pollution control equipment installed.

We have information and graphics to illustrate this issue on our new fact sheet.

Business decisions in the utility sector are complex. Don’t let plant owners use our health protections as a scapegoat for their choice to retire old coal-fired power plants.

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