Approximately 40,000 MW of additional electricity can be squeezed from existing coal-fired power plants nationwide through the installation of standard improvements and clean coal technologies, according to a new study by the National Coal Council (NCC). The study, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy, also recommends that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency return to its prior interpretation of a key section included in the federal Clean Air Act so as to foster efficiency improvements at power plants.

The NCC’s findings were detailed in the study’s executive summary. The full report is expected to be issued at the end of this week. Then Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson in November 2000 asked that the NCC conduct a study on measures that the government, or government in partnership with industry, could undertake to improve the availability of electricity from coal-fired power plants. The council accepted Richardson’s request and formed a study group of experts to conduct the work and draft a report.

In the study’s executive summary, the NCC said that analysis of the U.S. utility industry infrastructure of coal plants reveals a significant potential for increasing the generation capacity from the plants by taking well-tested measures to boost the reliability and availability of older plants. This effort, which will come mainly from improvements on the steam generators on these older plants, can create 10,000 MW of new capacity, according to the NCC’s findings.

The NCC goes on to note that techniques to recover lost capacity, as well as increase capacity above nameplate, have been collected from a combination of research studies by utility industry organizations such as EPRI and actual case studies that are included in the report. The nameplate capacity of coal units older than 20 years is 220,000 MW, the executive summary continues, while the existing capacity is only about 200,000 MW due to derating. According to the NCC’s findings, this group of plants has the potential for both capacity restoration (about 20,000 MW) and/or improvement (about 20,000 MW). It is estimated that this increased capacity of 40,000 MW could be recovered within 36 months. “This can allow the economy to grow while new generation facilities are sited, constructed and brought into service,” the executive summary states.

While natural gas will fuel the majority of new capacity additions during this time period, there are currently about 321,000 MW of coal-fired capacity in service, the NCC said. While not all this capacity can be targeted for the new technologies discussed in the report, the summary continues, it is estimated that 75% of it can be retrofitted with existing technologies. This additional increase in capacity is estimated to be 40,000 MW and much of it could be brought on line in the next three years, according to the NCC. Approximately 25% can be targeted for repowering with much cleaner and higher efficient coal-based power generation, the summary adds.

But the NCC goes on to argue that unless there is a major change in regulatory interpretation and enforcement regarding the installation of new technologies at existing power plants, it is not likely that any of this additional low-cost, low-emission electricity will be produced. The recent change in enforcement procedures by the EPA has had a “direct and chilling effect” on all maintenance and efficiency improvements and clean coal technology installations at existing power plants, the NCC added. According to the executive summary, the EPA is now reinterpreting as violations of the Clean Air Act what had heretofore been considered routine maintenance at power plants.

According to the NCC, the EPA has brought legal action against 11 companies and 49 generation facilities since 1998 under the new source review section of the 1990 Clean Air Act. The companies involved believe that they were conducting routine maintenance needed to keep these plants in good engineering standing, the summary states. The NCC argues that a return to the historic interpretation of this one regulation alone would allow plant operators the opportunity to install technologies discussed in the report. If just a 3% increase in capacity could be achieved through reducing outages and increasing plant efficiency, the summary continues, it could result in over 11,500 MW of coal-based capacity being added to the current fleet.

The executive summary goes on to detail the following recommendations made by the NCC to the DOE:

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