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Coal plants challenged by natural gas, tough regulations

Brayton Point will shut down in three years, in part a victim of “growing economic pressures.”

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Brayton Point will shut down in three years, in part a victim of “growing economic pressures.”

Competition from natural gas combined with increasing environmental regulations has made casualties of many of the nation’s aging coal-fired power plants, including Salem Harbor Power Station and Brayton Point in Somerset.

By 2020, about 60 gigawatts of coal-fired electric-generating capacity — enough to power an estimated 48.5 million homes — is expected to disappear, at least partly due to the expense of meeting federal rules to cut pollution from power plants, according to the Energy Department.

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“For an existing coal plant to basically stay in operation, it would have to install some sort of pollution control apparatus, such as a scrubber,” said Elias Johnson, an energy analyst with the Energy Information Administration. “The problem is that these technologies are not cheap.”

The consequences are likely an even greater reliance on natural gas, which despite booming production, is experiencing upward pressures on prices. That in turn could mean higher heating and electrical costs for New England consumers.

Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff

Salem Harbor, set to close in June, will be replaced by a gas-fired plant.

In New England, where natural gas typically generates about half the region’s power, wholesale gas prices jumped more 75 percent in 2013, while electricity prices climbed about 55 percent, according to the Energy Department. At least some of those increases eventually get passed on to consumers.

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In general, natural gas, a cleaner-burning fossil fuel, has become more economical than coal, leading power companies to shed aging coal facilities in favor of natural gas plants. Just 12 percent of electricity in the region was generated with coal in December.

Salem Harbor, a 720-megwatt coal- and oil-fired power plant on Salem’s waterfront, is set to close in June. The 63-year-old facility will ultimately be replaced by a smaller gas-fired plant. Meanwhile, Brayton Point, which began operating in 1963, will shut down in three years, the victim of what its owners have called the “growing economic pressures” of environmental regulation and lower cost alternatives.

The closures are a concern for the region’s grid operator, ISO New England, which is charged with ensuring that the area has enough power-generating capacity to meet with the demand for electricity. By 2017, ISO New England says, the region will face a small shortage in generation-energy capacity, about 143 megawatts, or enough to power more than 115,000 homes. That’s about 2 percent of New England households.

Lacey Girard, a spokeswoman for ISO New England, said the region can’t expect to easily replace coal with natural gas unless it expands pipelines. The lack of pipeline capacity has led to supply shortages and price spikes in the region during periods of peak demand, such as cold winter days.

“If these fundamental economic forces continue to push older, more expensive oil and coal-fired generators toward retirement, the region’s dependence on natural gas will only increase,” Girard said in an e-mail. “And as the region has become more dependent on natural gas-fired generation, the natural gas pipeline infrastructure has grown increasingly constrained, resulting recently in much higher natural gas prices in New England than in other parts of the country.”

Shanna Cleveland, a senior attorney at the nonprofit Conservation Law Foundation in Boston, has long pushed to rid the region of coal, a fuel that produces large amounts of greenhouse gases that accelerate climate change. Still, she acknowledged that care needs to be taken in retiring coal plants to ensure that there is enough generation capacity to meet the demand for power. “We all need to be more proactively planning for the retirement of these facilities,” Cleveland said. “We need to make sure that as we are replacing these facilities, we are doing so in a way that is consistent with the policy choices we’ve made — and that is to move toward cleaner energy as soon as possible.”

Erin Ailworth can be reached at erin.ailworth@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ailworth.
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