The second-biggest carbon dioxide emitter in the state of Massachusetts will retire and no longer provide power as of May 2017. The Brayton Point Power Station near the town of Somerset — the largest of six coal-fired facilities in New England — is owned by Dominion, which filed the retirement paperwork on Monday.
Dominion actually only bought the plant a few months before, and spent $1.1 billion attempting to modernize its operations, which also include burning oil and natural gas.
But despite those efforts, a report last year by an investment research firm projected the Brayton Point plant would lose $3 million in 2014. The natural gas boom has flooded the power market with low electricity prices and coal-fired generation is finding it difficult to compete. The plant’s owners were also concerned about the further investments that would be needed to comply with the carbon dioxide emission rules the Environmental Protection Agency will release for existing power plants next year.
The plant’s retirement will leave its approximately 240 workers looking for new employment, though the company said it will try to ease the impact on them and the local community.
Despite its physical size, the Brayton Point station is only the second dirtiest plant in Massachusetts in terms of carbon dioxide emissions, at 3.26 million tons in 2011. The honor of dirtiest plant in the state went to the Mystic Generating Station, at 3.64 million tons. And neither plant even made it on to the list of the United States’ 100 dirtiest plants, compiled by a recent Environment America Report. According to the paper, those one hundred plants (98 of which are coal-fired) accounted for half of the U.S. power sector’s carbon emissions. The 50 dirtiest plants — a mere one percent of all electricity generating facilities in the U.S. — accounted for 30 percent of the power sector’s emissions, and 12 percent of the country’s.
As of 2011, ten of those top 100 plants had been scheduled for retirement. So more have probably been scheduled since, and the Brayton Point announcement actually marks the 150th plant shutdown since the Sierra Club began a campaign to shutter the nation’s coal plants.
That so many dirty plants remain in operation means there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit in terms of cutting the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions. We don’t yet know what the EPA’s rules for existing plants will look like. But if they include flexibility — either through the rate-averaging scheme proposed by the Natural Resources Defense Council, or a cap-and-trade system similar to what was used to cut acid rain — then states and utilities could get a good way toward their targets simply by running these plants less, while scaling up use of cleaner sources.
Aged and dated technology is also a big factor. The designed age limit for most coal-fired plants is 30 years. But the newest of the Brayton Point plant’s four units has been in operation 39 years, and the oldest unit has been pumping for 50 years. Approximately half the nation’s coal-fired plants range from 40 to 60 years old.
High-efficiency, low-emissions technologies already in operation get more electricity generation from less coal, but due to their age these plants haven’t taken advantage of it. The rules already established by the EPA for new plants will force much more widespread use of these technologies, as well as other methods for cutting emissions such as carbon capture and sequestration. As those technologies scale up, the rest of the country’s coal-fired fleet will have to take them on to meet the EPA rules for existing plants coming in 2014.