Half of All U.S. Coal Plants Would Lose Money Without Regulation

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  • Many coal plants kept open to ensure grid reliabilty: BNEF
  • ‘Plants persist even when they cost more to run than replace’

Cooling towers are reflected in a puddle at a coal-fired power plant in West Virginia.

Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg

It’s long been clear that U.S. coal plants are struggling. A study released Monday shows how much -- concluding that barely half earned enough revenue last year to cover their operating expenses.

Power grids may face “massive” upheaval as more uneconomic plants close, according to the report by Bloomberg New Energy Finance. The problem is particularly bad in Florida, Georgia and elsewhere in the Southeast, where the distance from major coal mines drives up prices. The study examined the monthly economic performance of every U.S. coal plant in operation since 2012.

Still, many coal plants manage to shield themselves from economics. About 95 percent of those with operating expenses exceeding revenue operate in regions where regulators set rates, the study found. Instead of allowing market forces to determine their fate, regulators and utilities often keep struggling plants open to ensure stability on their grids.

“We find ourselves awestruck by the resilience of U.S. coal,” wrote William Nelson and Sophia Liu, the report’s authors. “Plants persist even when they cost more to run than replace.”

Treading Water

Natural gas has made power so cheap that U.S. coal plants often don't break even

Source: Bloomberg New Energy Finance

Note: Study doesn't account for all forms of compensation in regulated markets.

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