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Breaking: Alexandria coal power plant to close next year

This morning, the City of Alexandria announced an agreement with GenOn Energy that will shut down the Potomac River Generating Station on Alexandria's waterfront by October 2012.

Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

The closure is an air quality and environmental justice win for the region. The plant had been a significant point source of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide air pollution for the region, according to Bill Skrabak, deputy director of Transportation and Environmental Services for the City of Alexandria. Much of this pollution blew across the Potomac River to Ward 8 and Prince George's County.

In the longer term, the waterfront site offers redevelopment opportunities. It had not been included in the city's Waterfront Small Area Plan. On a conference call this morning, city representatives said that they will continue to view the Waterfront Plan and potential redevelopment of the power plant as "discrete, separate issues."

The American Clean Skies Foundation, an advocate for closing the plant, released a plan for redeveloping the site several weeks ago as discussions heated up about a potential closure.

Potomac River Green plan.

The closure could also help the Mount Vernon Trail. The Clean Skies plan, called Potomac River Green, includes moving the MVT out of the cage along the river and onto a greenway along Slater's Lane, a second trail on Dangerfield Island, connections along the extended street grid, and a bike station near a new water taxi pier.

The plant has become both less critical to the region's energy needs and more expensive to GenOn as a result of pollution reduction agreements with the City of Alexandria. In 2005, additional power lines were installed under the Potomac River to improve reliability for the region's electric grid. This reduced the need for the Alexandria plant. Over the past few years, the plant was used less often; there were even entire months over the past year where the generating station was not in use.

In 2008, the operators of the power station signed an agreement with the city that committed GenOn to over $32 million in pollution reduction investments. Funds for these improvements were placed in a city escrow account. The first phase included dust and particulate matter reduction, primarily focused on the coal pile. These improvements cost approximately $2 million and have already been implemented. The remainder of the funds were to be spent on emission recirculation systems that would reduce harmful content emitted from the station's smokestacks.

As GenOn worked with the city on the more expensive second phase, however, it became clear that closure was a realistic alternative. Before spending money on the improvements, GenOn and the city instead signed the closure agreement. The city will release funds in the escrow account to GenOn, which will in turn close the plant by October 2012. If unforeseen circumstances lead the closure to be delayed until or beyond January 2014, the city will receive a one-time payment of $750,000 from GenOn.

The city will provide tax relief to GenOn after the plant's closure by taxing only the value of the site's land and none of its improvements, since the plant will be inactive. This tax relief will last 5 years, starting when the plant closes, and could be renewed for another 5 year term.

There are currently approximately 120 people employed at the GenOn plant; about 40 percent of those jobs are held by Alexandria residents. Calling it an "unexpected announcement," Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille pledged that the city will work with affected employees as they find new work after the plant's closure.

Stephen Miller lived in the District from 2008 to 2011 and is now a student at Pratt Institute's city and regional planning masters program. 


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I'm curious to know what may come of the railway to the south & also of the Robinson Terminal (which I *think* is one of the primary routes for incoming coal, though I admit I don't know that for sure).

The railway would likely no longer be necessary, opening some additional area for landscaping, some other infrastructure, or something else entirely.

And I only guess that the terminal's major client is the power plant... anyone know if that's correct? If true, then what would come of the terminal? Can it weather the loss of the coal cargo?

by Bossi on Aug 30, 2011 1:36 pm • linkreport

I think it's ultimately a small victory, because of the jobs lost and the fact that the plant's capacity will probably be replaced by a coal-burning plant elsewhere.

by Ron on Aug 30, 2011 1:43 pm • linkreport

The local politics of this will now get even more interesting.
There will be a hard core that will want nothing in the plant's place except for open parkland. There will be widespread lamentations of traffic. Look forward to 15 years of community meetings.

by spookiness on Aug 30, 2011 1:45 pm • linkreport

without addressing the complex Global warming/net carbon issue, this is still a huge good from the enviro POV - I mean a dense urban area is like the worst place for a coal fired power plant, no?

Plus the plant is a visual neg for old town. Whether its replaced by parkland or development (or, hopefully, both) its a win for the City of Alex.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Aug 30, 2011 1:55 pm • linkreport

Bossi, I'm interested in that rail line too. There are a lot of possible uses. It could be make into the backbone of a streetcar from old town to the infill metro station, or a rail trail or just green space. the Clean skies plan says:

"The western boundary of the existing PRGS site is
marked by the rail spur used to deliver freight to the
Robinson Terminal properties and coal to the PRGS.
Upon closure of the PRGS and the redevelopment of
the Robinson Terminal properties (as envisioned by
Alexandria’s proposed Small Area waterfront plan),
the need for the rail line will end. Accordingly, this
document assumes that the property occupied by the
rail line ultimately will be acquired and incorporated into
Potomac River Green. Eliminating the line will not only
provide for a well-planned and congruous mixed-use
development, but will also eliminate freight rail deliveries
through the adjacent residential neighborhoods, greatly
reducing noise and traffic disruptions."

Ron, the Clean Skies study makes the case that the new facility will create over 2200 jobs - that should make up for the lost jobs. What little lost capacity there is can be made up with clean renewable, possibly cleaner natural gas or the cleanest of all - greater efficiency. Even if it's coal it will be newer - meeting new, cleaner standards - and likely be located farther from a major metro area and so some of the health impacts can be mitigated.

by David C on Aug 30, 2011 1:57 pm • linkreport

I'm always glad to see Ggw celebrate the destruction on a rail line

Davidc; those new jobs are not much help to the plan workers

Isn't the clean air foundation funded b the natural gas industry?

by Charlie on Aug 30, 2011 2:22 pm • linkreport

The Robinson Terminal Company is owned by the Washington Post Company. In all the discussions about the need for a new, higher Wilson Bridge, it was the large ships regularly calling at Robinson Terminal with deliveries of newsprint for the Washington Post printing plant in Springfield that were cited as a primary customer at the Terminal. The large ships bound for Robinson were one of the few reasons the old bridge was raised regularly, disrupting auto traffic on the Beltway. The Post was always pretty upfront about acknowledging their own interest in supporting the need for the new bridge.

by ZZinDC on Aug 30, 2011 2:23 pm • linkreport

@David C:

It would be interesting to see if they actually consider keeping it and converting it, or scrapping it altogether. It seems to me that it's a readymade streetcar line that could go some way towards making other portions of the city transit-accessible. That being said, they'll probably scrap it, knowing Alexandria. :-)

by Ser Amantio di Nicolao on Aug 30, 2011 2:23 pm • linkreport

Methinks I see more multi-million dollar townhomes in Alexandrias future, but as Spookiness said, only after about 2 decades of public meetings to "discuss" it.

by freely on Aug 30, 2011 2:35 pm • linkreport

Charlie, you're right. We should just keep the plant open as a jobs program. I'm sure that's the kind of welfare you support right?

From wikipedia:

"Although Chesapeake Energy is a prime source of funds for the foundation, it actively seeks financial and in-kind support from a wide range of sources."

by David C on Aug 30, 2011 2:35 pm • linkreport

The Plant was originally owned by Pepco and acquired by Mirant in 2000 which later merged with Genon. Pepco still owns some equipment on site which leaked oil into the Potomac river this past January.

by Al Carr on Aug 30, 2011 2:40 pm • linkreport

@David c.; Not all all. I just think there is a difference in 300 jobs at a power Plant and the numbers you quote. Must be construction or retail.

by Charlie on Aug 30, 2011 2:43 pm • linkreport

there is a difference in 300 jobs at a power Plant and the numbers you quote.

True. That difference is 1900 jobs.

by David C on Aug 30, 2011 2:48 pm • linkreport

why don't we continue, as a nation, to outsource all potentially dirty or industrial concerns to other countries because they are not appealing or cause problems- and this way we do not have to worry about it.
Of course all of the jobs that make us self-suuficient will follow these industrial concerns- and before we know it we will be a "service economy" w/o the ability to do anything except for paper transactions. and the Chinese, the Koreans, the Russians, Iranians, and even Brasil will own the skies before we know it.

by w on Aug 30, 2011 3:54 pm • linkreport


That's a bit of a stretch of an argument in this specific case, where as best I can tell: the deal is occurring entirely with private funding.

by Bossi on Aug 30, 2011 3:58 pm • linkreport


I works out fine. It will take about 10-15 years to environmentally remediate the site for human occupations anyways.

by RJ on Aug 30, 2011 5:17 pm • linkreport


You're confusing issues here. Nobody's talking about outsourcing power generation. That's not even practical in the DC area. The transmission losses alone would likely make the scheme unprofitable, even if Canada somehow provided us with completely free power at the border.

Furthermore, the economics of power generation often come down to what fuel sources are readily available in the area. In the case of the eastern seaboard, that's coal, and we've got lots of it. If you can burn the coal without having to move it a great distance, it's very cheap.

It's a blindingly stupid idea to outsource coal power, considering that we have tons of coal right here, and that air pollution does not obey national borders.

Although CO2 emissions are indeed an ultimately unavoidable consequence of fossil fuels, coal plants also produce a good deal of particulate emissions, which tend to linger around the plant itself. For this reason, it's a pretty bad idea to build a coal plant within a densely populated city.

I agree that we should keep industry in or near our cities. It's good for both businesses and individual workers to have industries clustered together (more job opportunities for workers; more local expertise and industrial synergy for employers). However, dirty power generation is at the top of a very short list of things that should be kepy as far away from a populated area as possible. The health effects are too great not to consider.

And, finally, the plant doesn't even produce all that much power, and 120 employees is an extremely small workforce, considering the size and location of that site.

by andrew on Aug 30, 2011 5:29 pm • linkreport

@Andrew; I think that is a good summary.

From what I understood, the power plant was only used during peak power times. I think that puts the pollution issue into perspective -- it wasn't used everyday. Contrast it to the Arlington waste energy plant, which is being used regularly. Probably puts out more pollution.

The other aspect is if they could have built the smoke stack higher, a lot of the local pollution problems would be eliminated. Of course, it is on the national flight path.

I'm amazed at how much pollution controls have improved. Visited a refinery in Detroit last year, and the place didn't even smell. Not a scientific test, but one that suggests that pollution controls can work.

by charlie on Aug 30, 2011 6:06 pm • linkreport

@David C
Sadly, the plant's replacement is not likely to come from much cleaner sources - certainly not in PJM.
Its a 514MW plant operating at a relatively low 31% capacity factor. But it was coal, meaning it wasn't used for peaking capacity (so scratch solar PV and natural gas from the replacement list). Maybe some of that capacity will be replaced by wind - but certainly nowhere near 514MW worth. Nuclear and other baseload generation is already tapped out ;you can't add capacity at any nuclear plants or big marginal baseload capacity comes -unfortunately- from coal. Since natural gas is so cheap and will remain relatively cheap for the future, some small fraction of the lost capacity will come from gas plants - but not much.

So more likely than not PJM is just shifting around the 1.7m tons of CO2 that the plant belched out to another location.

You're point about newer plants with improved emissions controls for NOx and SO2 is a good one - assuming that whatever plant/mix of plants that pick up the slack are outfitted with newer controls.

TL;DR: Given its profile, the lost capacity from this plant is probably going to be replaced with coal - maybe a tiny fraction of wind/nat. gas - but mostly just shifting the emissions elsewhere.

by Bilsko on Aug 30, 2011 7:11 pm • linkreport

One other point - the shutdown date is for Oct 2012...but if PJM needs the plant for reliabilty-must-run capacity, it can stay open.

I can't see decomissioning for a plant and brownfield (aka. huge pile of coal) happening anytime before 2015...

by Bilsko on Aug 30, 2011 7:13 pm • linkreport

Is everyone really that reflexively against freight rail and any industrial use for this plant site and/or the Robinson Terminal? Are the only blue collar jobs in the future building construction and maintenance (including cleaning?)

I mean, I don't have any better ideas of what should be built there, and I quite enjoy my white collar existence in that neighborhood. (and if the plant is both polluting *and* underutilized *and* losing money good riddance)

But man, Braddock Road metro still has space that can be built up before talking about a two step bank-shot project of getting something moving people from Potomac Yards to the Torpedo Factory.

by Kolohe on Aug 30, 2011 9:12 pm • linkreport

The statement from the Potomac River Green plan website "open public access to a long stretch of riverfront property that has been closed off since the 1930's is literally not true. The 'cage on the river' to be sure, is not much, but it is access to the river. The trail goes around the plant completely on the river side.

If they're talking about boat access (and as the post and the link says, it's part of the plan) they're going to have to do a bit a dredging to get the main channel. (and even a little to get to the Dangerfield Island marina side channel). And not sure what sort of 'public' access that would be anyway, the existing docks don't have much in the way of purely public access.

by Kolohe on Aug 30, 2011 9:30 pm • linkreport

"Are the only blue collar jobs in the future building construction and maintenance (including cleaning?)"

A brand new silicon chip fab plant is being built in Malta, NY (north of albany) Its located in a smallish town, and its not on a valuable riverfront property. I dont know why people keep assuming that because industry is not the highest and best use of the old town riverfront, its not the highest and best use anywhere.

youd think at a blog like this people would consider that location MATTERS

by AWalkerInTheCity on Aug 30, 2011 10:04 pm • linkreport


Assuming that the base load for this plant is replaced at some point (because electrical consumption continues to increase) can you point to *recent* evidence that this has to come from coal?

Coal-fired plants aren't being built with nearly the frequency they were 10 years ago. The trend started before the economic downturn. Gas is really cheap, I think in many ways gas plants have lower operating costs (beyond fuel), coal is a bit more expensive due to export demand.

And the Obama administration has stopped ignoring the law for (this might not be the whole list):

- coal mining practices such as mountaintop removal
- toxic emissions from coal plants
- coal ash handling
- and GHG emissions

And even more important, utilities might not be progressives, but they aren't dumb. Power plants are built for decades, and the climate will keep warming up whether or not Rick Perry and Mitt Romney deny it. Eventually we will need to do something, and that will likely make coal fired power plants less valuable.

So closing a coal fired plant does not mean that another coal fired plant will be built. The idea that gas-fired generation is not baseload is out of date.

by DavidDuck on Aug 30, 2011 10:45 pm • linkreport

And the cleanest idea of all is to find ways to use less electricity. Maybe this plant doesn't need to be replaced.

As for industry, I don't think anyone ruled it out, but no one has offered any suggestions for it either. This is riverfront property near the nation's capital, so the demand for housing and office space is probably going to be higher than any industrial operation. There are cheaper places to set something like that up, and it isn't really DC's specialty.

by David C on Aug 30, 2011 11:20 pm • linkreport

"A brand new silicon chip fab plant is being built in Malta, NY (north of albany)"

That's quite a commute from the James Bland housing, even with high speed rail. :)

But that's part of my serious point. We're replacing the public housing in North Old Town with mixed income properties, which is all well and good (it is actually for the better) but that still leaves a need for jobs for the (for lack of a better term) lower income percentiles, especially since policy is for them to still live there. If the blue collar jobs are going to be out in the sticks, then move the people that need them out to the sticks. Otherwise you're going to have a group permanently and perpetually on the dole.

by Kolohe on Aug 31, 2011 6:22 am • linkreport

You make good points - and don't get me wrong, I'm not in favor of coal in any way - let me clarify a few of mine.

I'm not talking about *new* unbuilt coal capacity - on that we agree. If you look at the Withdrawn Interconnection queues for PJM, NY-ISO, and ISO-NE you'll see them littered with abandoned coal plant projects from the past couple of years. So no, not new coal capacity getting built to replace the GenOn plant.
Much of the 514MW will presumably be picked up by existing fossil fuel plants (I think mostly coal, but agree, some natural gas too). The issue with coal plants is that they're tamped down at night when their capacity is not needed or they just dump to ground. So the economics dictate that they'd rather utilize that capacity to generate revenue.

As I said above, the economics for gas plants are good enough with current and forseeable hub prices so that I'm sure that there will be gas replacing the GenOn's capacity...but it'll probably come after a good amount of tamped down coal gets utilized first.

For some of the recent data, I'd start with EPA's eGRID reports (2010, is most recent, I believe). That'll show you capacity factors for plants. ISO-NE does some really good calcs for marginal emissions rates - but note that gas far outweighs coal in the fuel mix for New England, unlike PJM.

My personal take is that we need a lot more distributed power - mostly Combined Heat and Power, because it is by far the most efficient, with some small scale PV, solar thermal, and other renewables as well. But we need utilities that are able (and willing) to accomodate lots of generation on the 'wrong end' of the wires, to get there.

by Bilsko on Aug 31, 2011 7:25 am • linkreport

"If the blue collar jobs are going to be out in the sticks, then move the people that need them out to the sticks"

The manufacturing jobs will be out in the sticks. A range of unskilled jobs in the service sector, from McDonalds to the oft discussed DC hotel industry (and see Alexandria's plans for new hotels on the waterfront) to road work, to gardening, to office janitors, will employ the low income folks. Indeed, many of the MANUFACTURING jobs in the stick, (most maybe) will NOT be unskilled.

The question of "Can the US still manufacture" and "what will the unskilled, uneducated do" are different questions, for the US in the 21st century. The US CAN still manufacture, but our competitive advantage will NOT be in unskilled manufacturing. What the unskilled can still do is almost entirely in the non outsourceable parts of the servicce sector. Will there be enough jobs in that sector for all the unskilled (even after recovery takes place) - NO! Thats why we need to increase the skill level of the work force.

It sounds like you want a return to mass numbers of unskilled factory jobs in the US - a return to US location of textile mills and garment factors and toy assembly, and so forth. I think thats unrealistic and incompatible with our standard of living - but even if its not, you arent going to get there by keeping industrial properties in one of the places where it makes the least sense

Im confused - were you really under the impression that the only op

by AWalkerInTheCity on Aug 31, 2011 9:28 am • linkreport

"Is everyone really that reflexively against freight rail and any industrial use for this plant site and/or the Robinson Terminal? Are the only blue collar jobs in the future building construction and maintenance (including cleaning?)", and no. On principle. But not at that location.

For one thing, it's riverfront land. Virginia already has less of that to build up than Maryland has had (viz National Harbor - there's simply no way to create anything of that scale on the Virginia side of the river for varying reasons.) Admittedly I'm being somewhat selfish as a Virginia resident, but I don't see the need of keeping this particular site industrial when so much more could be made of the riverfront property. The parkland already exists, yes - but now it can be landscaped and supported by the buildings around it, rather than coexisting with an industrial site. I'm not saying there's no place for this sort of industry in Alexandria (leaving aside the question of whether or not coal-powered industry is the best idea); I don't think this is the place.

Same with the freight railroad. I wouldn't necessarily advocate building a transit line along that path under normal circumstances. However, the railroad exists - why not convert it to passenger use? That would be far better than discarding it altogether, and it would provide a helpful service from downtown Alexandria. Who knows? If handled right it might even make for a worthwhile VRE connection to broader transit.

by Ser Amantio di Nicolao on Aug 31, 2011 9:42 am • linkreport

Looking at the study, which you can assume is a bit biased:

1) Construction: 485 "direct" jobs; 169 "indirect" jobs through 2020

2) Permanent employment: 997. 556 office, 336 retail, about 56 hotel jobs

In terms of employment, I find it more of a wash. Some construction jobs. Great. Not sure you can take into account the office jobs -- are they just being shifted? Retail and hotel jobs are real, if not well paid.

The best argument would be tax revenue for the city. I don't like the math their either. They are assuming a lot of expense for the city in terms of eduction. However, I think anyone could agree a 25 acre mixed use development represents a lot more tax revenue than a coal plant.

by charlie on Aug 31, 2011 10:00 am • linkreport

Charlie so going from 120 jobs to 1000 jobs, with a period of 600+ short term jobs, is a wash? Then you wouldn't mind trading me 1000 of your dollars for 120 of mine right? That would be a wash.

by David C on Aug 31, 2011 12:10 pm • linkreport

Thats why we need to increase the skill level of the work force.

No disagreement there. But there's no easy answer how to get there from here.

Alexandria public schools are Ok, (not the greatest in the area, but not the worse). TC Williams is the city's sole highschool (so all economic classes are represented) and does well enough by the people who do well enough in it. But others, not so much.

I also fully agree that low skill manufacturing is gone for good. But I don't have a good answer to give to, for example, Frank Sobatka, of what 'people like him' are supposed to do in the future.

@Ser I basically agree with you too, but would only say that the Torpedo factory area *is* Alexandria's version of National Harbor. (and most everything on both sides of the Potomac between the Legion Bridge and the Wilson Bridge is parkland already. The only exceptions I can think of off the top of my head are the Alexandria waterfront, Blue Plains, the Bolling Joint Base, and a bit of Georgetown.)

by Kolohe on Aug 31, 2011 8:48 pm • linkreport


Not GenOn - but still VA power plants.

Lots of new Natural Gas and coal-to-gas conversions.

I imagine that PJM is probably going to look at the retirement of Chesapeake and Yorktown plants when considering how quickly to let Potomac go offline.

by Bilsko on Sep 2, 2011 10:17 am • linkreport

Coal has been losing market share for a long time now. In 1998 Coal accounted for about 53% of US generation. In 2011 that was done to just a hair over 43%. It's very very difficult now to bring new coal online. With the typical natural gas plant putting out about 60% fewer pollutants, and with a lot more renewable coming online (about 40% of new generation nationally is now renewable, mostly utility grade wind), the American power grid just ain't what it used to be.

by Michael North on Jan 24, 2012 10:46 am • linkreport

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