Since 2012 the U.S. has retired over 96,000 MWs of our coal-fired power plants. The pace of these retirements is expected to slow down over the next several years, with the largest expected retirement to occur in 2028 with 9,842 MW. These planned retirements continue to be focused on relatively older facilities but the need for reliable and affordable electricity is still required. At the latest 2023 EEI Conference the need for increased electrical generation was of great concern, because it appears we will not be able to keep up with the demand that is expected in the near-term future.
To date, a large fraction of coal’s displacement has been replaced with natural gas generation. But environmentalists continue to remind us that although it is cleaner than coal, natural gas is still a fossil fuel and therefore has associated greenhouse gas emissions.
Renewables sources like wind and solar power are scaling rapidly, but there are several challenges in using them to displace coal-fired power.
First, these sources tend to be decentralized, and require a lot of area for the power they produce. Second, these sources are intermittent, and therefore require much more capacity to displace the same capacity from a coal-fired power plant. Certainly, these renewable sources will continue to grow in importance, but in the short-term, we can’t expect coal-fired power plants to be replaced with intermittent renewables.
However, nuclear power is a viable option for meeting our electrical needs as a clean, reliable, dispatchable baseload power source. A report “Investigating Benefits and Challenges of Converting Retiring Coal Plants into Nuclear Plants” was released in 2022 by the U.S. Department of Energy. This report estimated that approximately 80% of retired or active coal plant sites in the United States are suitable to host advanced SMR’s. The report noted conversion of coal plants to SMR’s could save money and reduce emissions. The report estimates that converting a coal plant to nuclear power could save the plant owner up to $1 billion over the lifetime of the plant and reduce emissions by up to 90%.
The International Energy Agency published its own report on the potential for the displacement of coal-fired power in November 2022. The report, Coal in Net Zero Transitions, examined the role of coal in the global energy transition and identified various strategies for reducing coal-related emissions in a way that would be rapid, secure, and people-centered. Their report stated that globally, coal is the largest emitter of energy-related carbon dioxide, accounting for 15 billion metric tons in 2021. Coal is also the largest source of electricity generation, globally, accounting for 36% in 2021.
The report identified several main pathways for reducing coal-related emissions.
The rapid phase-out of unabated coal power involves phasing out all coal power plants that do not capture and store their emissions by 2030. This pathway would require significant investment in clean energy technologies, but it would also deliver the largest emissions reductions in the shortest time.
A gradual phase-out of unabated coal power involves phasing out unabated coal power plants over a longer period, such as by 2040. This pathway would require less investment in clean energy technologies than the rapid phase-out pathway, but it would also deliver smaller emissions reductions.
Continued use of coal with carbon capture and storage involves using CCS technology to capture and store the emissions from coal power plants. CCS technology is still under development, but it has the potential to significantly reduce coal-related emissions.
As you can see, the report sees the rapid phase-out of unabated coal power as the most effective way to reduce coal-related emissions, and nuclear power is expected to play a key role in replacing that coal-fired electricity generation. Over 30 countries have demonstrated their interest in expanding nuclear capacity, expecting about 18 GW’s annually from 2026 to 2030, tripling the average of 6 GWs from 2017 to 2021.
While China leads the nuclear expansion, other countries such as France, India, Poland, the United Kingdom, and the United States have announced support or plans to invest in new nuclear projects. The IEA expects an average of 20 GWs of nuclear capacity to be added each year from 2030 through 2050. This includes small modular reactors that offer lower upfront costs and improved safety and waste management features.
There are certainly challenges and opportunities associated with converting coal plants to nuclear power. The biggest challenge is the cost and time to build new nuclear power plants. Some regulatory hurdles need to be overcome to convert coal plants to nuclear power. However, converting coal plants to nuclear power could help retain work forces at coal plants, stabilize the economy, while helping the United States meet its climate goals.