Older coal-fired power plants are being targeted for conversion projects as more emission regulations take effect and U.S. oil and gas operators continue to flood the market with natural gas, National Geographic reported.
Many coal-fired plants in the U.S. are more than 40 years old, which means they need significant improvements to meet new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards. However, if companies plan to invest millions of dollars into plants, they've found it may be better to convert facilities to using natural gas instead of upgrading them or shuttering them. One major advantage to this approach is that natural gas available in the U.S. is now cheaper than coal. Another is that natural gas emits about half as much carbon as coal and is less costly to outfit with environmental controls.
According to SNL Financial, at least 29 coal power plants located in 10 states have been converted to natural gas or biomass power facilities in the last four years, National Geographic reported. Now another 54 coal units are slated for renovation in the same way throughout the next decade.
Reactions to the conversion of coal-fired plants to natural gas facilities have been mixed. Those in favor of more renewable energy sources have been disappointed by the nation's continued reliance on fossil-fueled energy, while some have viewed fuel conversions as an environmental win. For communities that host older coal-fired power plants, conversions are often viewed as a positive option because they preserve jobs and retain and local tax revenue.
More plants are closing
While the debate over the benefits of converting facilities to natural gas continues, many coal-fired power plants in the U.S. are simply being shut down. The age of the plants and the cost of improvements to comply with new environmental standards are too much for many utilities. The U.S. Energy Information Administration projected 60 gigawatts of coal-produced energy capacity will be taken offline between 2012 and 2020.