© 2024 Allbritton Journalism Institute
Jeffrey Energy Center coal power plant as the suns sets, near Emmett, Kan.
Across the country, coal plants are currently operating past their planned retirement date. Charlie Riedel/AP

What Happens When Biden’s Clean Energy Goals Crash Into an Addiction to Coal

A lose-lose situation is playing out in Maryland, where a push to close a coal plant is running up against a lack of planning on the part of the state, grid operator and utility company.

Across the country, coal plants are currently operating past their planned retirement date. Charlie Riedel/AP

Maryland is facing a lose-lose decision: risk widespread blackouts in Baltimore and potentially Washington, D.C., or force up electrical bills and greenhouse gas emissions.

The state can get closer to achieving its clean energy goals if a massive coal plant shuts down on schedule, but the electrical grid is likely to eventually collapse under the pressure.

“I don’t think anybody is under any illusion about that, and I don’t think any of us see any kind of magical answer,” said Paul Pinsky, the director of the Maryland Energy Administration.

Against nearly everyone’s objections, Brandon Shores and H.A. Wagner, the coal plants on Maryland’s Patapsco River, will likely be required to run for at least three years past their planned 2025 retirement date. Even though this will raise costs for consumers and slow the energy transition, the alternative is not tenable, energy officials say.

Across the country, demand for power is increasing, and old sources of generation like coal are shutting down. Clean energy is being added to the grid at a record-breaking pace — accounting for nearly 60% of new power commissioned in 2023 — but very few of the new sources can provide predictable and reliable power around the clock.

As President Joe Biden and Democrats urgently pitch a clean energy future, their goals have smacked into reality. States, grid operators and utility companies have not adequately prepared for the new power and transmission required to compensate for the end of coal, let alone a future without oil and gas.

In Delaware, the Indian River coal plant is currently operating past its planned retirement date for the same reason, as are the Rush Island plant in Festus, Missouri, and the Lakefront plant in Manitowoc, Wisconsin.

Building the technology needed to reliably match energy demands with renewable sources can take years and be prohibitively expensive. Many regions do not currently have the “firm” resources they need to compensate for planned coal retirements in the next 10 years, according to the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, which is responsible for ensuring the reliability of the electric grid.

“President Biden has taken some steps, which we applaud, to move in that direction, but there’s still tension points,” Pinsky said. “The planning remains an issue.”


Last year, Gov. Wes Moore pledged the state would move to source its energy from 100% renewables by 2035.

A 2020 settlement between the Sierra Club and the energy company that owns Brandon Shores appeared to be already moving the state in the right direction. Talen Energy pledged to stop burning coal at those plants in exchange for the Sierra Club ending its litigation against the company’s other projects.

In a vacuum, the settlement was a huge win for environmental activists.

But coal plants don’t exist in a vacuum.

Wes Moore
Maryland Gov. Wes Moore pledged the state would move to source its energy from 100% renewables by 2035. Nathan Howard/AP

In the case of Brandon Shores, the grid operator — called PJM, which controls the largest section of the electrical grid in the country — was not prepared to handle the transition. PJM concluded that the coal plants needed to stay online until more transmission or energy projects could be built.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s Allison Clements called PJM’s grid planning “troubling” in a recent ruling about Brandon Shores. “Could PJM have carried out planning activities sooner?” she asked. “With the potential retirement of many more units in the region, it is urgently important to understand whether any other retirements may present similar risks,” she wrote.

PJM’s independent market monitor shares those concerns. Companies should not be asked to keep plants running after they have decided to retire them because they are no longer financially viable, the monitor wrote in its 2023 report.

PJM declined to comment further, and pointed NOTUS to public documentation on the matter. It has argued in Federal Energy Regulatory Commission filings that it must wait for a company to announce a plant’s closure before it models the outcomes and makes decisions about how to adjust.

The Sierra Club disputes PJM’s argument that both plants must stay online. PJM should build better processes to find alternatives to keeping coal plants open, said Casey Roberts, a senior attorney with the Sierra Club’s environmental law program. The Sierra Club proposed one (which involves building a very large battery for storage and some technical transmission improvements), but PJM shot it down, calling it unrealistic.

“A lot of this is about PJM’s failure to plan for these deactivations. PJM’s view is that unless they have an absolute firm retirement date for a plant, they should not factor that into their transmission planning,” Roberts said. “PJM is in a really tough situation, but it is somewhat of their own making, and maybe this is just the example that hopefully will instigate change,” she added.

Maryland won’t be able to meet its clean energy goals without changing the status quo, and that will require PJM to leave behind decades of a certain way of doing things, said Pinsky and Ryan Opsal, his policy director at the Maryland Energy Administration.

“I don’t want to characterize it that PJM is completely shutting us out, but they could certainly be better,” Opsal said.

Maryland has very little power over the final outcome in the case of Brandon Shores, which will be decided by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

And the Sierra Club, which has successfully campaigned to shut down coal plants across the country, is left in a strange position, both a winner and a loser: set back in its efforts to stop coal burning at Brandon Shores, yet still holding onto the significant power that the settlement gives it over Talen.

The commission is still considering proposals for how much Maryland ratepayers will have to pay to keep the plant online and how often the plant will run. The agency is expected to announce its next steps within the first three weeks of June.


In order to prevent a repeat Brandon Shores situation, the country needs to dramatically ramp up building transmission lines. But that could be both expensive and politically tricky.

The Biden administration has started to reckon with that reality: The Department of Energy estimates that the transmission system needs to grow by more than 60% by 2035 in any scenario with lots of clean energy on the grid, and that number goes up dramatically assuming high energy demand. Already in the United States, coal generation was the lowest recorded in more than 30 years in 2023, and coal plants continue to retire faster than predicted.

Power lines cross a farm near Frederick, Md.
Less than half of Americans support building power lines in their neighborhoods to move clean power, according to recent polling from the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

“Historically, the permitting process for clean energy infrastructure, particularly transmission, has been plagued by delays and bottlenecks at every level,” John Podesta, Biden’s senior adviser for clean energy innovation, told reporters last month.

New transmission capacity to replace Brandon Shores will cost hundreds of millions of dollars and will not be completed before 2028 — and only if it’s not slowed by local opposition, permitting issues or supply chain delays, all of which are incredibly common.

Less than half of Americans support building power lines in their neighborhoods to move clean power, according to recent polling from the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago. And those power lines will have to go through some people’s backyards, as Podesta acknowledged last month.

A Pennsylvania congressman is already pushing back on the planned new transmission lines that will run through his state to compensate for Brandon Shores’ closure.

“Pennsylvania should not be required to suffer more power lines through prime farm ground,” Rep. Scott Perry told NOTUS, adding that Maryland should keep its coal plant in operation instead. “There is zero reason that we should chew up prime Pennsylvania farm ground for more power lines because Maryland is closing a power plant,” Perry said.

Anna Kramer is a reporter at NOTUS.