Industry in Turmoil: Coal Plants Shutting Down Around the World

Numerous announcements of plant closures during the past week are painting a grim picture for the future of the coal industry.

On March 20, several news outlets reported that American Electric Power (AEP) had sent Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, or WARN, notices to workers at half a dozen coal-fired plants. Employees at the Kanawha River Plant in Glasgow, W.Va.; the Philip Sporn Plant in New Haven, W.Va.; the Kammer Plant in Moundsville, W.Va.; the Glen Lyn Plant in Glen Lyn, Va.; the Muskingum River Plant in Beverly, Ohio; and the Tanners Creek Plant in Lawrenceburg, Ind., all received the notices. News of these retirements was not a big surprise—it had been in the works for nearly four years—but the notices confirmed the May 31, 2015 closure date.

AEP has plans to retire four more coal-fired units this year (Clinch River Unit 3 in Cleveland, Va.; Big Sandy Unit 2 in Louisa, Ky.; Picway Unit 5 in Lockbourne, Ohio; and W.C. Beckjord Unit 6 in New Richmond, Ohio) and two additional units next year (Northeastern Station Unit 4 in Oologah, Okla., and Welsh Plant Unit 2 in Pittsburg, Texas). The retirements are part of AEP’s plan for complying with the Mercury Air Toxics Standards for existing power plants. In all, more than 6,000 MW of coal-fired capacity will be retired by early 2016. The company says that natural gas and renewables will account for a larger portion of its fuel mix as a result.

Closings are not isolated to U.S. facilities, however. ScottishPower announced plans to close one of the biggest coal-fired power stations in Europe. The company said on March 23 that it would shutter its 2,400-MW Longannet plant, located in Fife, early next year after it failed to win an important contract with National Grid. The winner: A gas-fired plant.

By the end of 2016, all four of the coal-fired power plants located in Beijing, China, are expected to be shutdown as well. The first closure occurred in July when the Gaojing Thermal Power Plant, operated by state-owned China Datang Corp., shut its doors.  Two more—one operated by Guohua Electric Power Corp. and the other by Beijing Energy Investment Holding Co.—were taken offline on consecutive days last week. The last, an 845-MW station run by China Huaneng Group, will be retired next year. Four gas-fired plants with at least double the capacity will replace the facilities, according to reports.

Making matters worse for the coal industry is the lack of new development. According to a report released by CoalSwarm and The Sierra Club last week, two coal-fired power plants have been shelved or canceled worldwide for every one that has been completed since 2010.

The report says shelved or canceled projects since 2012 outnumber completions by a six to one margin in India. In Europe, South Asia, Latin America, and Africa, the failure-to-completion rate is said to be 4:1 or higher. China is said to face a capacity glut, with the overall utilization rate for thermal plants at 54%—the lowest level in more than 30 years—and it’s no secret that coal fleets are shrinking in both Europe and the U.S.

But the news is not all bad for the coal industry. Turkey, Vietnam, Indonesia, Poland, and the Balkans are all bucking the trend and adding more coal plants; China still gets more than 70% of its energy from coal and has roughly 116 GW of new capacity under construction; and India has about 165 GW of coal-fired capacity, with nearly 70 GW more currently under construction. The U.S. Energy Information Administration still predicts in its most recent annual energy outlook that coal will account for the largest share of the U.S. electricity generation mix through 2034, despite the number of projected plant retirements.

Aaron Larson, associate editor (@AaronL_Power, @POWERmagazine)