Vintage U.S. coal-fired power plants now an ‘aging fleet of clunkers’


The American Electric Power coal-fired plant in Glen Lyn, Va. (Ryan Stone/For the Washington Post)

When the coal-fired power plant at the Bingham Canyon copper mine in Utah started up, Franklin D. Roosevelt was running for his fourth term as president. The top music hits were sung by Bing Crosby, Jimmy Dorsey and Dinah Shore. D-Day was still a couple of months away.

People born that year are now collecting Social Security.

Yet 70 years after opening, the power plant north of Salt Lake City hasn’t yet retired. It is, depending on how you calculate it, the oldest in the nation. And it’s still running with the original boilers, steam turbines and fans to power the company’s smelter and crushing operations. The local managers want to replace three of the four units at the plant with a more efficient combined cycle model, but that costs hundreds of millions of dollars and they’re awaiting approval from the parent company, Rio Tinto Kennecott.

“They’re not as efficient as a new coal plant, but it’s still economic for us to operate rather than purchase electricity from the local utility,” said Michael Vaughan, principal adviser for energy programs at Rio Tinto Kennecott, which draws about 160 megawatts from the plant.

This isn’t the only U.S. coal plant of advanced age. The average coal plant in the United States is 42 years old, but the oldest — and least efficient — date from the 1940s and early 1950s. Many of them also lack the most modern pollution controls and contribute to poor air quality.

The likelihood that plants like this one will shut down by 2030 at the latest was one key factor in the Environmental Protection Agency’s calculations about what limits to place on carbon emissions from existing coal plants. The closure of certain plants could bring the proposed statewide targets within easier reach.

The 10 oldest U.S. coal plants were built between 1943 and 1949. They include Glen Lyn, a Virginia plant owned by American Electric Power, the nation’s largest carbon dioxide-emitting utility, and a small power plant at a military base in Fort Wainwright, Alaska. Every one of the 10 oldest except for Fort Wainwright’s is expected to close down well before the end of the decade, according to Sherri Liang, an associate analyst with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign.

Just a bit further down the list are bigger ones built in the 1950s, which Exelon chief executive Christopher Crane calls “the Eisenhower plants.”

Here’s a look at some of the vintage plants.

Glen Lyn

Located on a bend in the river in Giles County, Va., the Glen Lyn plant is AEP’s smallest and oldest coal plant and the nation’s second oldest; it has been generating power since 1944.

The site is ideal for a power plant, and as early as 1919 power-generating facilities operated there because of its proximity to the coal mines of southwestern Virginia, a river for water supplies and the main line of two railroads.

The plant was built to supply electricity to the booming coal industry, but over time demand for electricity increased. Just five years before the coal plant in Glen Lyn, Va., opened, the percentage of rural homes in America with electricity had risen — to 25 percent. Three years before the plant opened, the number of televisions sold climbed to 7,000.

New capacity was needed as demand grew among commercial and residential customers, and eventually six units were built.

However, the plant is no longer essential, and only two units are still operating. Since 2010, both of AEP’s units only have been staffed to operate during peak periods; both of these units ran during the extreme polar vortex cold in January. Both units will be permanently closed by mid-2015, company spokeswoman Melissa A. McHenry says, because it isn’t worthwhile to make the investment needed to bring them in line with the EPA’s much-delayed mercury and air toxics standards.

The AEP decision illustrates the scope of the EPA mercury regulation. While coal plants that predate the 1970 Clean Air Act were exempted from many of the regulations put in place then, the mercury rules apply to any power plant larger than 25 megawatts, regardless of age.

Fort Wainwright

The Fort Wainwright Central Heat and Power Plant in Alaska is the nation’s third-oldest coal-fired power plant. Once the largest coal plant owned by the U.S. military, it is now operated by a private firm, Doyon Utilities.

The plant opened in 1945. The base, originally called Ladd Field, was a transfer point for the U.S. Lend-Lease Act through which nearly 8,000 aircraft were delivered to Russia.

But there are no plans to close the plant. A nonprofit called Ground Truth Trekking says the plant uses around 230,000 tons of coal a year and produces up to 20 megawatts of electricity, as well as steam for heating.

Environmentalists say the plant also contributes to the poor air quality in Fairbanks, which is surrounded by hills on three sides and is therefore susceptible to temperature inversions that trap a layer of cold air close to the ground. Even a relatively small amount of pollution can be trapped near the ground for weeks at a time.

In 1999 the EPA fined the Army more than $16 million for violating the Clean Air Act; at the time it was the largest fine levied by the EPA against a Defense Department installation. The Pentagon later settled the dispute over the fine for $2 million.

Over time, the plant has been extensively modified. In 2007, a device was added to the plant to reduce ice fog in the winter that obscured visibility on the nearby Richardson Highway. This plant uses a baghouse, or a giant fabric filter, to capture fly ash from the stack.

A condition of the sale to Doyon was that it upgrade the facility, including the replacement of 18-year-old control equipment and the rebuilding of distribution lines.

‘Cash-for-clunkers’?

Environmentalists haven’t been the only ones floating plans to close the oldest coal-fired power plants in the nation’s fleet. One idea was modeled on the Obama administration’s “cash-for-clunkers” program in 2009 to jump-start the economy and reduce tailpipe emissions by buying old cars with poor fuel efficiency and getting motorists back into showrooms.

Several people — including T. Boone Pickens, Ted Turner and NRG chief executive David Crane — advocated a cash-for-coal clunkers program. Most figured it would immediately close down about an eighth of the coal fleet, significantly cutting carbon dioxide output.

Environmental groups have advocated closing the “dirtiest” coal plants, not necessarily the oldest. Last September, Environment America, a federation of state environmental advocacy organizations, said in a report that the 50 “dirtiest” coal plants accounted for more than 2 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions — or more than all but six countries.

Utilities are cautious, but some are interested in seeing vintage plants shut because they sometimes undercut the price of electricity offered by nuclear plants. If the coal plants close, the nuclear plants — also threatened by low renewable and natural gas prices — might be on sounder footing, Exelon’s Crane said in a recent interview.

“It really is an aging fleet of clunkers. And these are the oldest and clunkiest,” says Bruce Nilles, a lawyer at the Sierra Club who has campaigned for years to shut down coal plants. “Their age underscores how quickly we could seize this opportunity.”

While many coal state politicians and coal industry allies have denounced the EPA’s targets for existing coal plants as too aggressive, Nilles notes that “they’re all getting damn close to retirement age, and to replace them over the next 10 to 15 years isn’t that big a stretch.”

Most of the old units are ripe for retirement, Nilles argues. They were built with ratepayer money, he says, and the ratepayers have been rewarded. He compared it to paying off the loan on an old car.

“Now the question is, do you pour more money into them?” Nilles asked. “First, most are too old to put another dime in, like an old car with holes in the floor. Second, we have much cleaner, cheaper options.”

Steven Mufson covers energy and other financial news.
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