In a report titled Ripe for Retirement: The Case for Closing America's Costliest Coal Plants, the Union of Concerned Scientists suggests that over 600 coal-fired generating units at power plants across the United States could (or should) stop operations. The authors concluded that as many as 353 coal-fired plants should be retired because they are less economically-viable than their natural gas-fired competitors due to higher operating costs and upgrades for pollution control. This group of closure candidates, when added to the 288 generators already scheduled for closure, results in a staggering total of 641 units that could be taken off-line in the coming decades. According to the report, those power plants provide approximately 10% of the electricity consumed in the U.S. The report begs the question “What will we do with these old, worn-out, coal-fired power plants?”
Thirty-one states have one or more of the 353 units, and many of the units are found in four states in the American southeast: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee. The top 5 power companies that operate these candidates are Southern Company, Tennessee Valley Authority, Duke Energy Corp., American Electric Power Company, Inc., and FirstEnergy Corp.
Figure from Ripe for Retirement
Since many of these facilities were constructed and began operations before our current environmental, health, and safety programs were in place (the average ages from 45 to 50 years), it is likely that the sites contain asbestos, lead-based paint, mercury, PCBs, and other materials that will require special handling. On-site hazardous substances, raw materials, salvaged equipment, building debris, waste, and other products of the decommissioning all must be removed and disposed of as required by law.
We cannot simply turn off the switches and close the doors on these large and complex facilities. Careful demolition will protect human health and safety and preserve the environment. Strategies for these closures may range from minimal activity (remove hazardous chemicals, limit access to the site, maintain the site for re-use) to full-scale decommissioning (dismantle and remove all equipment, demolish buildings, remove all materials). Regardless of which strategy is adopted, these tasks will involve the entire alphabet soup of environmental programs, including the Clean Air Act (CAA), Clean Water Act (CWA), Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), Superfund, and many others. It will be expensive to close these facilities in the safest ways possible, maximize resource recovery, and leave the sites viable for other uses. Although expensive, it will be a good investment. Plus, it’s the law.