Power Plant Retirements: Trends and Possible Drivers

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This paper synthesizes available data on historical and planned power plant retirements. Specifically, we present data on historical generation capacity additions and retirements over time, and the types of plants recently retired and planned for retirement. We then present data on the age of plants that have recently retired or that have plans to retire. We also review the characteristics of plants that recently retired or plan to retire vs. those that continue to operate, focusing on plant size, age, heat rate, and SO2 emissions. Finally, we show the level of recent thermal plant retirements on a regional basis and correlate those data with a subset of possible factors that may be contributing to retirement decisions.

This basic data synthesis cannot be used to precisely estimate the relative magnitude of retirement drivers. Nor do we explore every possible driver for retirement decisions. Moreover, future retirement decisions may be influenced by different factors than those that have affected past decisions. Nonetheless, it is clear that recently retired plants are relatively old, and that plants with stated planned retirement dates are—on average—no younger. We observe that retired plants are smaller, older, less efficient, and more polluting than operating plants. Based on simple correlation graphics, the strongest predictors of regional retirement differences appear to include SO2 emissions rates (for coal), planning reserve margins (for all thermal units), variations in load growth or contraction (for all thermal units), and the age of older thermal plans (for all thermal units). Additional apparent predictors of regional retirements include the ratio of coal to gas prices and delivered natural gas prices. Other factors appear to have played lesser roles, including the penetration variable renewable energy (VRE), recent non-VRE capacity additions, and whether the region hosts an ISO/RTO.

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