This map from a Department of Energy report shows a possible network of CO2 pipelines if carbon capture were expanded in the U.S.

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This map from a Department of Energy report shows a possible network of CO2 pipelines if carbon capture were expanded in the U.S.

©2013 E&E Publishing, LLC
Republished with permission

By Katherine Ling

Up to 20 percent of coal-burning power plants in the eastern United States are expected to close within five years because of low prices for natural gas and expected greenhouse gas regulations, says a report released by the Department of Energy Wednesday.

While federal and state governments are providing incentives to promote carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technologies for coal plants, those efforts won’t be cost-effective, according to the study prepared for DOE by consulting firm ICF International.

Most of the expected 60 gigawatts of coal plants that would be shut down are older and smaller, which means their closure would mainly affect local electricity supplies, the report says.

“This could potentially mean requiring new capacity and/or transmission investments to maintain reliability,” it says.

The reliability of the U.S. electric grid has been a key concern among regulators and utilities in response to impending emissions control regulations by U.S. EPA, including greenhouse gas regulations and tighter control on so-called conventional pollutants such as nitrogen oxide and sulfur oxides.

Nearly 85 percent of the nation’s coal-fired power plants are in the Eastern Interconnection, a part of the grid comprising 39 states along the East Coast and across to the Midwest. By 2015, about half of those coal plants will be 50 years old or older, but they represent about 25 percent of the region’s total capacity, the report says.

The report says that the region contains 269 gigawatts of coal capacity, with one-third of that in five states: Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

The report will provide key in-depth information for electric grid planning for the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and the Eastern Interconnection States’ Planning Council, which is composed of the state-level government agencies responsible for siting transmission in those areas. ICF completed the report in June, but DOE just released it to the public Wednesday.

The report also notes that excess capacity, low growth in electricity demand and high capital costs of coal plants will continue to challenge the expansion of existing or development of new coal plants.

Even if CCS technology is finally commercialized, it will not be enough to save the coal plants, the report says.

“The uncertain future of regulatory and legislative carbon policy, coupled with low gas prices, casts doubts on the future development of CCS,” the report says. “Even if a carbon policy comes to fruition, CCS may be first deployed on natural gas plants before coal-fired plants, if natural gas prices remain low.”