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Smart Energy Solutions: Decrease Coal Use

Coal is a dirty energy source. It pollutes our environment with toxins, produces a quarter of U.S. global warming emissions, and accounts for a whopping 80 percent of all carbon emissions produced by power generation nationwide.

When we burn coal for electricity, we place our health, our environment, and our planet at risk. It’s time to reduce our dependence on this polluting energy source.

There are nearly 600 coal-fired power plants operating in the United States today, producing almost half of the nation’s electricity. To decrease our reliance on coal, we must shut down the oldest and dirtiest coal plants and replace them with reliable and clean energy sources. 

UCS experts work to analyze practical, cost-effective strategies for lowering America’s coal use—and have consistently demonstrated that closing down the dirtiest coal-fired power plants would not adversely effect the reliability of our electricity supply, nor would it significantly increase the cost of electricity for consumers.

America's Costliest Coal Plants Are Ripe for Retirement

A significant number of U.S. coal-fired power plants are old, inefficient, and no longer economically competitive. They are ripe for retirement — it simply makes no financial sense to keep them running when cheaper, cleaner alternatives are available.

Learn more:

Ripe for Retirement: An Economic Analysis of the U.S. Coal Fleet — 2013 Update
Ripe for Retirement: The Case for Closing America's Costliest Coal Plants (2012)

Burning Coal Wastes Money

The costs of coal go beyond just its environmental impacts. Coal also incurs substantial economic costs for the states that rely on it most, especially when they import large amounts from other states or foreign countries.

Learn more:

Ranking the States that Import the Most Coal: Burning Coal, Burning Cash — 2014 Update
Burning Coal, Burning Cash (2010)
Burning Coal, Burning Cash (2010): State Fact Sheets
UCS Coal Import Index
Who’s Got the Power?—Take this Quiz and Find Out

Aging, Water-Intensive Coal Plants Are Vulnerable to Energy-Water Collisions

A significant number of U.S. coal-fired generators use once-through cooling systems, which involve large amounts of water withdrawals. This places them at greater risk for energy-water collisions, which occur when insufficient water is available or water temperatures are too warm for power plant cooling.

Learn more:

Water Dependence Risks for America's Aging Coal Fleet

Investing in Coal Makes No Economic Sense

Utilities and other electricity producers are poised to invest heavily in retrofitting old coal-fired power plants or in building new ones. Current economic, technological, and policy trends make such commitments exceedingly risky, both from a financial and environmental perspective.

Learn more:

A Risky Proposition: The Financial Hazards of New Investments in Coal Plants (2011)

Do We Need New Coal-Fired Power Plants?

NO. If we increase renewable energy and improve energy efficiency, we can completely eliminate the need for new coal-fired power plants and shut down the oldest, dirtiest plants without adverse effects to our electricity supply.

Learn more:

Do We Really Need New Coal and Nuclear Power Plants?
EPA Power Plant Standards Will Not Affect Electricity Reliability

We Can Burn Less Coal—and Burn It Cleaner

Coal will remain part of our electricity mix for several decades as we transition to a clean energy economy. In the interim, we can minimize the environmental impact of coal-fired power plants by adopting technologies that significantly reduce coal pollution and global warming emissions.

Smart government policies can encourage the deployment of this technology, as well as support investment in more advanced emissions-reduction technologies like carbon capture and storage. 

Learn more:

Coal Power in a Warming World (2008): Investing in Carbon Capture and Storage
UCS urges EPA to regulate coal ash

Coal Threatens Climate Policy in the Northeast

The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative caps carbon dioxide emissions from power plants in 10 Northeast states and marks an important milestone in the country’s response to climate change. Yet that pioneering effort could unwittingly contribute to greater use of coal elsewhere.

Learn more:

Importing Pollution: Coal's Threat to Climate Policy in the U.S. Northeast (2008)

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