New Study Shows AL Coal Units Ripe for Retirement

Guest Blog | November 13, 2012 | Press Releases

ATLANTA (November 13, 2012) – Alabama is second on a list of states with the most coal-fired generating capacity that should be considered for closure, according to a new analysis released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) in partnership with Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE). These coal generators will likely be more expensive to operate in the long run than switching to natural gas, wind power, or investing in energy efficiency. The peer-reviewed study, based on publicly available data on the U.S. coal fleet, used an economic test to evaluate whether every coal generator nationally, including those in Alabama, could compete – after being upgraded with modern pollution controls – with available cleaner, lower-cost energy resource. (Most power plants have multiple electricity generators.)

The report, “Ripe for Retirement: The Case for Closing America’s Costliest Coal Plants,” found that as many as 24 coal generators at seven coal-fired power plants in Alabama, may no longer be economically viable if they are upgraded with modern pollution controls. The plants, which together represent up to 6.5 gigawatts (GW) of electric generating capacity, include Green County, Gadsden, Charles R. Lowman, Gorgas, Barry, Colbert, and E. C. Gaston. The electricity they produce will cost more than electricity generated by natural gas power plants and wind power in many cases.

“Our analysis shows that switching to cleaner energy sources and investing in energy efficiency often makes more economic sense than spending billions to extend the life of these obsolete coal plants,” said Steve Frenkel, report co-author and director of UCS’s Midwest office. “The state’s utility regulators should require Alabama Power, which owns most of the out-of-date units in Alabama, to carefully consider whether ratepayers would be better off by retiring these old coal plants and boosting electricity generation from natural gas and renewable energy sources like wind. Spending billions to upgrade old coal plants may simply be throwing good money after bad.”

“Ripe for Retirement” ranks the states and utilities with the most coal-fired power capacity that should be considered for closure. Georgia tops the state list, followed by Alabama, Tennessee, Florida, Michigan, South Carolina, Wisconsin, Indiana, Mississippi and Virginia. Southern Company, one of the nation’s largest private utilities, owns the most coal-fired capacity ready for retirement, followed by government-owned Tennessee Valley Authority. Duke Energy, American Electric Power and FirstEnergy, though high on the list, have fewer economically vulnerable generators, in part, because they each have already announced they are closing several coal generators.

“Alabama Power recently announced plans to purchase wind power from Kansas, saying it was a lower cost option than generating the power themselves. We think that’s the right way to move, but they have a long way to go to significantly decrease their dirty coal footprint in the state,” said Ulla Reeves, SACE’s regional program director. “This new study shows that they ought to consider closing more highly polluting and uncompetitive units. In addition to saving money by cutting back on coal usage that pollutes our health and our air and water in so many ways, Alabama Power has an opportunity to become a better corporate citizen.”

“Local and regional considerations must be taken into account before deciding whether to retire and replace any specific coal generator and Alabama Power has already made plans to run some coal units on natural gas,” said Jeff Deyette, a UCS senior energy analyst and report co-author. “With appropriate planning, the vast majority of these coal generators could be closed and replaced with cleaner, more affordable resources while maintaining reliability.”

Nationwide, the UCS study found that as many as 353 coal generators in 31 states, representing 59GW or 18 percent of the country’s coal generating capacity, should be considered for closure because they will likely be more expensive than energy from lower cost natural gas or wind power. Plants that are candidates for retirement are typically older, less efficient, underutilized, and more polluting than the rest of the nation’s coal fleet. These generators average 45 years in age, well beyond the 30-year expected life span for a typical coal generator. These units are less efficient, operating only at 47 percent of capacity, compared with 64 percent for the total U.S. coal fleet. In addition, 70 percent of these generators lack adequate equipment to control the emissions of at least three of the four harmful pollutants examined in the analysis (sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, mercury, and soot).

“This is an historic opportunity to accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy. Decisions we will make in the next three to five years can improve public health, reduce global warming, and create a more resilient energy system,” said Frenkel.

Shuttering the 59 GW of coal-fired generators the study identified along with 41 GW already slated for closure would reduce the electric power sector’s annual carbon dioxide emissions up to 16.4 percent, or 410 million tons, depending on what resource replaces coal. Besides emitting pollutants associated with asthma, neurological damage, heart attacks and cancer, coal-fired power plants are the nation’s largest single source of heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions, the primary cause of climate change. In Alabama, closing the 24 units at the seven plants identified in the report would mean eliminating as much as 25.8 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year, equivalent to removing 3.8 million cars from the road. # # # The Union of Concerned Scientists is the leading U.S. science-based nonprofit organization working for a healthy environment and a safer world. Founded in 1969, UCS is headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and also has offices in Berkeley, Chicago and Washington, D.C. For more information, go to

Founded in 1985, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy is a nonprofit organization that promotes responsible energy choices that create global warming solutions and ensure clean, safe, and healthy communities throughout the Southeast. Learn more at