Investing in retrofits keeps the lights on and allows us to breathe easier

Since the Clean Air Act was amended in 1990, which set emissions standards for power plants and other facilities, the electricity sector has made strides in retrofitting coal-fired plants to reduce the amount of harmful pollutants released into our air. These investments have not only contributed to improved air quality, but have also provided safe, reliable and affordable electricity to our communities.

Significant investments in air emission control technology, totaling more than $117 billion over the past 25 years, have helped to keep coal-fired plants viable assets to their communities.

This figure comes from a study, Valuing the National Investment in Coal-Based Power Generating Plant Air Emissions Controls, that we commissioned with the Edison Electric Institute and National Rural Electric Cooperative Association to quantify how much the electricity sector has invested in environmental controls since 1992.

Many of these investments focused on air emission control equipment retrofits, such as the installation of flue gas desulfurization technology for sulfur dioxide and combustion controls for nitrogen oxides during the early 90’s. Thereafter, the Environmental Protection Agency issued additional rules in 2003 and 2009, which directed plants to add controls such as dry sorbent injection for sulfur dioxide, sulfur trioxide, and hydrogen chloride, add baghouses, and upgrade particulate matter equipment such as electrostatic precipitators.

The benefits to these investments are clear. The report points out that since 1990, emissions of NOx and SO2 have fallen 80 and 90 percent, respectively, and that the major driver for these reductions can be attributed to air emissions controls.

While these retrofits do not address the release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, this reduction does have far reaching effects. Cleaner air to breathe means people in our communities are healthier – they have fewer asthma attacks and experience heart disease at a lower rate than when these pollutants are abundant. Less pollution also means more sunlight to reach crops, which helps farms thrive. It means less acidity in freshwater and rain, and a more balanced ecosystem.   

Approximately two-thirds of coal capacity in the United States is from plants that are 40 years old or more, which means that most coal-fired generation has seen significant upgrades and retrofits in the past few decades.

As these plants age, the industry continues to move away from coal-fired generation and move toward low and or non-emitting generation technologies. In the past 10 years, more than 60,000 MW of coal-fired plants have been retired, with another nearly 24,000 MW planned for retirement through 2022.

As many communities discuss how to divest from fossil fuels, we believe this valuation is a helpful factor in considering the investments made, the trends in costs to implement environmental controls, and weighing the economic and environmental impacts of retiring or repurposing these assets. 

It is up to each community to decide what they want to do moving forward. While weighing the best options for your community, however, don’t overlook the economic value of the billions of dollars invested in this infrastructure.