|Data-driven maps provide details about coal-powered electric plants globally. Image: Sierra Club Beyond Coal project. Click to enlarge.
Reporter’s Toolbox: Plant Trackers Help Mark Coal’s Decline
By Joseph A. Davis
Keeping track of developments with coal-fired electric power plants is hard work. Seems like there’s a new retirement announced almost every week or so (see our related Backgrounder, “Climate-Unfriendly Coal May Be Losing Ground in U.S., But Not Worldwide”). But if you are writing about climate change, it’s something you’ll need to do.
Fortunately, there’s a database for that — actually several. Help is on the way.
First, think about what realm of data you really want to explore. It’s instructive to look not just at coal plants in the United States, but also worldwide, since that offers perspective on how the global climate response is going.
Plant tracker gets into the weeds
The Global Coal Plant Tracker may be what you want. It is a project of Global Energy Monitor, a foundation-funded nonprofit originally founded as CoalSwarm. It is drawn from an array of open data sources, which are fairly well documented.
Be aware that the database is published by Endcoal.org, an advocacy group opposed to coal. It allows you to see coal in international context instantly, for example. Overall, it tracks data on 12,967 units worldwide (individual power generating stations may have more than one unit).
A fairly cool thing about this database
is that it gets down in the weeds to
the level of the individual power plant.
But a fairly cool thing about this database is that it gets down in the weeds to the level of the individual power plant. It includes technical data, coal consumption and retirement data (if applicable).
You can get much of the same data — focused only on the United States — from the Sierra Club’s database, which is map-based and especially detailed on retirement status.
The Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal organizing campaign (which advocates an end to coal use) could be considered very successful — if technological change and market forces were not putting coal out of business anyway.
Remember, though, that such databases are compilations of primary data from other sources, and are only as good as their sources. If you are going to use the data in a story, try to ground-truth it.
U.S., global info sources available
If you are mainly interested in U.S.-based coal plants, you will want to go to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The EIA is supposed to be non-political. It collects data on every power plant (however fueled) in the United States. This data is available in its online EIA-923 database, is updated monthly and includes fuel consumption data.
If you want the international overview, the International Energy Agency may be helpful. It is good at analyzing trends from a global and international perspective, summarizing the story statistics tell.
There is also another power plant database put out by World Resources Institute, which is an academically respectable nonprofit and nonpartisan think-tank.
Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, as well as compiling SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column and WatchDog Alert.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 5, No. 36. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.