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Most coal-fired power plants in the US are nearing retirement age

coal power plant chicago
AP Photo/M. Spencer Green
Goodbye, coal.
By Todd Woody
USPublished Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

There’s a lot of talk about the US’s aging infrastructure—crumbling highways, deteriorating pipelines and the such. Likewise, the nation’s power plants are getting on in years, according to a recent report by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) that signals the shape of future energy consumption and by extension the impact on global markets.

More than half—51%—of the US’s electricity generating capacity was built before 1980. About 74% of all coal-fired power plants are at least 30 years old, and the average life of such plants is just 40 years, according to the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners. Given US Environmental Protection Agency emissions regulations, it’s likely the coal plants will be replaced with natural gas when they’re mothballed. (This is positive for the environment: the EPA says a natural gas plant generates on average half the carbon emissions of a coal-fired power plant.)

The EIA chart below shows coal and nuclear power’s heyday between 1960 and 1980 and where the future is going. Around 2000 a huge spike in natural gas-fired electricity began and which is almost sure to continue at least in the coming decade given the shale gas glut. And as the first decade of the 21st century came to a close, wind energy began to become a significant contributor the power grid, particularly in states like California, Iowa and Texas.

In fact, natural gas and wind account for nearly all power generation built in the past decade.  Wind alone has provided for 37% of new electricity capacity since 2006, according to the EIA.

And there are some power providers are nearly a century old and still going strong. The EIA says that 24 of the nation’s oldest 25 hydropower facilities were built more than 90 years ago.

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