Most recent new coal-fired power plant in the US

Coal-fired power plants are shutting down left and right throughout the US. That’s despite the current Administration’s attempt to reverse this trend. Solar, wind, and natural gas are much cheaper so that attempt is fighting a strong headwind.

So what was the last coal plant to begin operation in the US?

The University of Alaska at Fairbanks is building a new but small (17 MW) coal-fired plant to provide electricity and heat for its campus. Construction is complete and it’s undergoing testing now. It’s expected to start operating next month.

That’s not quite operational, but OK. So what was the most recent besides that? I’m more interested in large utility owned plants, rather than small plants like that.

You can play around with the slider on this site to see what was built and when.

Healy in Alaska, a small 50MW plant came on line in 2015. It looks like the newest large scale plants in the US came online in 2013

In the second chart, it appears some coal was brought on line around 2013 Capacity by initial operating year

Last big construction was a failure. Switched to natural gas. Plant was hoped to use gasification to convert the coal to syngas - mostly hydrogen and also capture the CO2 for use in pressurizing oil wells to improve recovery.

Largest Clean Coal Plant

I’m downloading a spreadsheet that shows initial operating dates for all US power plants. Going to need some sorting. I’ll be back.

You can find the spreadsheet here. XLS format. Seems we have operating power plants from the 1890s - hydro.

And here it is, April 2015
Cells copied from spreadsheet - sorry about the formating.
5624 RED-Rochester, LLC 10025 RED-Rochester, LLC Industrial CHP NY 75TG 3.0 2.2 2.2 Conventional Steam Coal BIT ST 4 2015 (OP) Operating

Thanks sb. I’m surprised it’s that recent. There’s been a concerted effort (Beyond Coal) to shut down old plants and deny permits for new ones over the past 15 years or so. I guess it hasn’t been perfect.

Solar and wind aren’t replacing coal in any significant way. Solar only accounts for a bit over 1 percent of U.S. power production. Wind accounts for about 5 percent, but wind power is a bit problematic. Since wind power isn’t constant, power systems using wind power often have other power sources (usually fossil plants) that are running at less than peak efficiency just so they can take up the slack when the wind dies down. You can’t just dial up the power on a coal or natural gas power plant and have it respond in a second or two. Huge steam boilers take a long time to heat up and cool down, so keeping extra reserve in these plants to handle the inconsistency of wind power means wasting fuel keeping the boilers hot enough to provide enough power when the wind slacks off.

Solar is similarly inconsistent since it varies with sunlight. In the southwest, there are solar plants that focus the sun’s energy into salt, melting the salt. Water is then run through the molten salt (through pipes) and heated into steam, powering a conventional steam turbine. The salt retains the heat even as the sun’s output varies, so you get constant 24/7 power output. It’s a lot more complicated than simple photovoltaic panels, but it’s much better for power production since you don’t need other plants on the system to take up the slack as the sunlight varies. These types of plants are only viable in the southwest though.

Coal plants aren’t being replaced by solar and wind in any significant sense. A few decades ago, natural gas provided a very small percentage of power in the U.S. The bulk of our country’s power used to be split between coal and nukes. Now, natural gas accounts for roughly a third of all power generation in the U.S., with coal also accounting for roughly a third (natural gas is currently #1, but only by a small percentage), and nukes are roughly 20 percent of our power. All other power sources combined (solar, wind, geothermal, hydroelectric, biomass, landfill gas, etc) only make up about 15 percent of our power generation.

Only been 13 plants since 1999. Rochester is a piddling 3.0 megawatt capacity. Iowa State Univ. and Notre Dame also had small power plants; 15.1 and 9.4 MW respectively. All the others were 100+ MW up to 900+ MW.

The Rochester plant is converting to natural gas. Eastman Business Park

Fascinating spreadsheet - hey I’m retired and still curious. Scrolling right you can find the links to Google / Bing maps.

Not right now, no. As you say, it’s mostly natural gas that’s doing that. This will likely change in the future. While what you say about the inconsistency of wind and solar is true, that can be ameliorated by large batteries, such as the Hornsdale Power Reserve in South Australia. There are other large battery projects in South Australia going forward, as well as others in various parts of the world. Some utilities in the US are looking into this as well. In New Mexico, for example.

These projects are using large lithium-ion batteries. Eventually, I expect that flow batteries will replace those, once they get the bugs worked out.

One can say that eventually Cold Fusion will replace all current power generation. And if you lived in the 80’s, scientists would have you believe that it will be any day now.

While battery technology has evolved tremendously, the costs and capacity of these systems are no match to current needs. They can find niche applications for grid stabilization as your links show above, but they are far far away from mainstream deployments.

You’re also going to see equalization from batteries that people are using anyway. Suppose, for instance, that electric and/or plug-in hybrid vehicles increase in popularity. Most folks will be charging overnight, or while they’re at work, with the vehicle plugged in for two or three times as long as is needed. Now put in smart meters: That’s something that we have all the tech for now, and just needs implementation. When the wind is blowing, the power company decreases the price, and when it stops, they increase it again. The car’s charger, meanwhile, is connected to the smart meter, which is tracking the price changes in real time, and only charges when the power is cheap. In this scenario, nobody is buying batteries just for power equalization (they’re buying them to power their cars), but the batteries are still getting used for that purpose, anyway. The power company gets equalization, the consumer gets cheaper electricity, and all it costs anyone is some cheap electronics. It’s win-win.

Consider an electrical energy provider. They decide to go with wind energy and it’s a win-win like you said on days wind is blowing. But wind is seasonal and the consumer wants to charge the car even when wind is not blowing. So now the electrical provider needs another power plant. So the investment cost goes double - unless the government subsidizes in some way. How is this a win win ?

There is data to show that gasoline is an inelastic product. That is price changes of gasoline has little effect on demand. The same will happen when people switch to electric cars I.e. people are going to charge cars no matter the price of electricity. This again leads back to power companies needing two power plants for the same capacity.

The term “Electrical Energy Provider” is evolving. It used to represent a single entity the produced, shipped, delivered and provided customer service.

With the introduction of power market pools though those tasks have been separated. To the customer it looks like the local XYZ electric company takes care of all of that and in some ways that company has that capability but separating those tasks into power pool market gives them the ability to buy available power from neighbors instantly when their solar or wind sources shift suddenly.

In other words, they don’t have to have a quick dispatch power plant on line to take up the slack, they can lean on their neighbors who will happily sell a few more megawatts from their already spinning generators.

The pool, not XYZ company, does all of the dispatching and their first priority is reliability, their second is reduced costs to the companies via shared resources.

So instead of the XYZ company having to keep an equal unit on line for the dips caused by solar and wind, The pool can keep its most economical units on line and operating under capacity for the inevitable swings in demand and supply.

The most important answer is above - natural gas - aka methane. The advent of fracking and LNG have together transformed the energy market. It now possible to transport liquid methane to where the markets are, rather than only being able to sell it where you found it or run very long and expensive pipelines - and the gas is much more available. Couple that with a CO[sub]2[/sub] per unit energy half that of coal, the ability to run both traditional steam turbines and gas turbines (which with a combined cycle system are very efficient) and you have a very hard time not choosing to build a gas powered generator. Gas turbines can be spun up very quickly in comparison to steam, and so are a better match in a system with solar and wind. Add in a bit of battery (like Hornsdale) to get some cheap synthetic inertia in the system and you have a a pretty good answer.

The experience here with the Hornsdale battery has been pretty close to a total win. Be clear, it is a 100MW/100MWhr battery. That couldn’t keep even a fraction of our state running for its rated one hour at maximum power delivery. But it has taken over the stability market. Previously there was a cartel that controlled the stability market, and in times of need the spot price for grid stabilisation would reach stratospheric levels. With the providers pocketing tens of millions a year for nothing but spinning iron. The Hornsdale battery does it better and has wiped out the cartel. There are more batteries to come here, as well as a solar molten salt generator. We also have silly amounts of wind power, and some days power a good fraction of the country. But there are still days when we are buying our power from coal powered stations interstate.

The problem for coal is not renewables, maybe in decades to come this will be so, but rather that natural gas is a good fit with renewables and has half the carbon footprint - not to mention a host of other environmental benefits over coal. And it much easier to work out a financial package for gas. Coal makes investors nervous. Not as nervous as nuke power, but nervous none the less.

Has there ever once, in all of the history of meteorological records, been an entire night with no wind across half of the continent? If it has ever happened, how common is it compared to other weather occurrences which occasionally prevent people from getting to work the next day?

While that is an interesting question deserving scientific investigation, the power industry uses a simple metric called the capacity factor. It is how much electricity a power plant actually produces compared to how much it would produce if it operated at full nameplate capacity 100% of the time.

Onshore wind turbines have a median capacity factor of 38% (and a maximum of 52%). A natural gas combined cycle (usual natural gas plants) have a median of 73% (and a maximum of 93%)

Although, it doesn’t answer your question directly, it illustrates my point made before.

The above data is taken from NREL’s Transparent Cost Database. Here is the data with box plots : (Click on the tab labeled Capacity factor)

Electrochemical batteries are never going to account for more than a fraction of a percentage of total grid storage needs. They simply cost too much per unit energy for bulk storage of electrical power generation and the difficulting in controlling or predicting exact availability in any part of the grid makes it an extremely challenging control problem. In general, the two biggest problems with PV solar are the storage of excess energy in the daytime to be used in off-peak production hours, and the fact that with varible pricing at a threshold level of deployment, PV solar energy will be worth essentially nothing at peak hours where there is a surplus, which means that there will actually be no return on investment above and beyond the savings from not buying energy from the grid. This still makes cheap PV it ostensibly appealing for homeowners or businesses who can use the power during peak hours of have a method of storing it for offpeak use (because utilities are never going to just give power away even if they have a surplus of it) but it doesn’t support off-peak large scale constant industrial needs for power.

The bigger problem of surplus power production is actually just dealing with and controlling the fluctuation of power being produced; Germany experienced this during the March 20, 2015 solar eclipse and managed to demonstrate a control of their grid such that the prompt drop and rise power did not cause system faults and brownouts, but that was due to months of preparation for Energiewende. The general capacity of existing electrical power distribution networks simply cannot handle large scale power fluctuations, which would require a far more autonomous and self-correcting system (along with some method for storage of bulk power as electrochemical, thermal, or gravitational potential energy for later use). This is an infrastructure investement of tens or hundreds of billions of dollars even for a moderate sized nation like Germany, and would be in the trillions for the United States. That it is also necessary—not only to support PV or other non-steady renewable forms of power production but also to make the grid more robust from deliberate attack or a natural Carrington-type event—does not negate the fact that there are no plans to do so and wide adoption of on-grid PV solar would stress the existing grid systems in North America and Europe to the breaking point. See Varun Sivaram’s Taming The Sun: Innovations to Harness Solar Energy and Power the Planet as a practical discussion on the benefits and potential pitfalls of solar, and particularly photovoltaics by someone who has actually worked inside the PV solar industry as well as been an outside advocate and energy analyst. It is a very pragmatic view of the advantages and issues with wide-scale adoption of solar power worldwide.

In general, any proposed single solution to future energy needs is generally the result of blind evangalism over rational analysis and planning. Solar—and particularly photovoltaic solar—represents an inexhaustible resource that is at least statistically reliable in lower latitudes and can be deployed very rapidly in comparison to nuclear fission or other constant-load resources to replace the worst atmospheric carbon dioxide producers, but it has both its fiscal limitations (e.g. the need for innovation, wider deployment, and the load balancing problems discussed above) that require capital investment on the order of trillions of dollars with no immediate sum toto return-on-investment. Scaling nuclear fission—which to date has been heavily subsidized both implicitly and explicitly, and yet remains fiscally uncompetitive and politically contentious—requires both orders of magnitude increases in uranium extraction and processing/enrichment facilities along with mitigation of contamination and dealing with disposal and retirement of waste fuel elements and contaminated plants/processing facilities, or else (prefereably) the development of next generation systems that require less fuel enrichment and/or can use thorium and mixed oxide fuels with near-complete burnup to minimize waste in the overall fuel cycle. Practical nuclear fusion is decades out; wind and wave energy are “free” in terms of their availability, but limited in scale for how widely they can be deployed given suitable locations. Ground transportation may shift to battery or fuel cell electric vehicles but there will still be significant niche applications that will require liquid hydrocarbon fuels, as will aviation for the foreseeable future. And while natural gas is a net carbon producer, there are also massive reserves remaining which make it competitive against solar and preferable form a cost standpoint as a feedstock for synfuels versus crop biofuels, as well as being at least a better replacement for coal and fuel oils in terms of atmospheric carbon production and with fewer other noxious emissions.

So, in short, any plan for future energy needs should be a portfolio of different sources and methods that seeks to reduce carbon emissions while realistically evaluation the cost and speed at which more sustainable techologies can be practically and fiscally deployed.