Energy Stocks

Coal Ash Ponds From Shuttered Plants Present Environmental Threat

Most of us know by now that President Trump digs coal. However, these days power can be purchased or generated more cheaply with renewables.

So even the president can’t keep coal-fired power plants open.

Here’s the thing… When a coal-fired power plant is turned off for the final time, revenues screech to a stop. But expenses don’t.

And what’s more, long-term environmental factors need to be considered.

The Cost of Closure

The typical 500-megawatt coal-fired plant can take 18 to 30 months to dismantle. Closing costs vary by site but range from $5 million to $15 million.

The income from the sale of salvage and scrap is not insignificant. But it’s not enough to cover demolition and the removal of hazardous materials.

In addition to shutdown costs, there are site redevelopment costs. These are generally financed with investment capital. And the average time for site redevelopment is three years.

Some utilities opt to repower old coal plants instead. They remove the coal-fired boiler and replace it with a natural gas-fired one.

Costs to convert a plant from coal to natural gas range from $25 million to $75 million.

A fuel conversion project can take anywhere from 12 to 18 months. This is faster and far less expensive than building a new natural gas-fired plant from scratch.

Many of these old plants are sold “as is,” meaning the buyer assumes all costs to remove structures.

The buyer also generally assumes all future environmental liabilities on the site. And those liabilities are where the big hidden costs lie.

The Environmental Liability

Incredibly, there are no state or federal requirements forcing utilities to decommission and sell old plants. So they sit on utilities’ books doing nothing.

But nearly every one of these closed plant sites is hiding a big potential liability: a coal ash pond or landfill.

Every year, coal-fired power plants generate more than 100 million tons of coal ash. And there are federal regulations regarding coal ash disposal.

Most utilities combine coal ash and water to create a thick sludge. This is stored in hastily constructed retention ponds. Little, if any, thought was given to the potential environmental damage.

Case in point… On December 22, 2008, there was a massive coal ash spill in Tennessee. It was the largest coal sludge spill in U.S. history.

The ensuing pollution of the Emory and Clinch rivers was significant. Elevated levels of toxins, including arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel and thallium, were found.

More than 30 cleanup workers died. And 300 more developed terminal illnesses.

The whole cleanup project took six years and cost a cool $1.13 billion. Tack on another estimated $2 billion in economic impact costs.

And that’s just one plant and one coal ash pond.

Who Really Pays?

Today, there are more than 300 “high and significant hazard” coal ash dams in the U.S. These are a huge, outstanding liability.

It’s no wonder utilities are opting to do nothing with the properties after the plants shut down.

The problem, though, is that the environmental threat continues. Even if these dams never fail, many of the coal ash ponds are unlined and slowly leach toxins into the surrounding groundwater.

So… solar or wind, anyone?

Good investing,

Dave