Vintage u.s. coal-fired power plants now an ‘aging fleet of clunkers’ – the washington post gas near me open now


When the coal-fired power plant at the Bingham Canyon copper mine in Utah started up, Franklin D. Roosevelt was running for his fourth term as president. The top music hits were sung by Bing Crosby, Jimmy Dorsey and Dinah Shore. D-Day was still a couple of months away.

Yet 70 years after opening, the power plant north of Salt Lake City hasn’t yet retired. It is, depending on how you calculate it, the oldest in the nation. And it’s still running with the original boilers, steam turbines and fans to power the company’s smelter and crushing operations. The local managers want to replace three of the four units at the plant with a more efficient combined cycle model, but that costs hundreds of millions of dollars and they’re awaiting approval from the parent company, Rio Tinto Kennecott.

“They’re not as efficient as a new coal plant, but it’s still economic for us to operate rather than purchase electricity from the local utility,” said Michael Vaughan, principal adviser for energy programs at Rio Tinto Kennecott, which draws about 160 megawatts from the plant.

This isn’t the only U.S. coal plant of advanced age. The average coal plant in the United States is 42 years old, but the oldest — and least efficient — date from the 1940s and early 1950s. Many of them also lack the most modern pollution controls and contribute to poor air quality.

Environmentalists haven’t been the only ones floating plans to close the oldest coal-fired power plants in the nation’s fleet. One idea was modeled on the Obama administration’s “cash-for-clunkers” program in 2009 to jump-start the economy and reduce tailpipe emissions by buying old cars with poor fuel efficiency and getting motorists back into showrooms.

Several people — including T. Boone Pickens, Ted Turner and NRG chief executive David Crane — advocated a cash-for-coal clunkers program. Most figured it would immediately close down about an eighth of the coal fleet, significantly cutting carbon dioxide output.

Environmental groups have advocated closing the “dirtiest” coal plants, not necessarily the oldest. Last September, Environment America, a federation of state environmental advocacy organizations, said in a report that the 50 “dirtiest” coal plants accounted for more than 2 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions — or more than all but six countries.

Utilities are cautious, but some are interested in seeing vintage plants shut because they sometimes undercut the price of electricity offered by nuclear plants. If the coal plants close, the nuclear plants — also threatened by low renewable and natural gas prices — might be on sounder footing, Exelon’s Crane said in a recent interview.

“It really is an aging fleet of clunkers. And these are the oldest and clunkiest,” says Bruce Nilles, a lawyer at the Sierra Club who has campaigned for years to shut down coal plants. “Their age underscores how quickly we could seize this opportunity.”

While many coal state politicians and coal industry allies have denounced the EPA’s targets for existing coal plants as too aggressive, Nilles notes that “they’re all getting damn close to retirement age, and to replace them over the next 10 to 15 years isn’t that big a stretch.”