The Limits of Green Energy Ambition
January 10, 2022
By: Andrew Stamm
Is it possible to dismantle every nonrenewable energy power plant in the United States within 10 years? That question fueled our extensive interviews with the demolition industry’s titans and opened a ﬂoodgate of responses from members of the National Demolition Association. What we ultimately discovered was a lack of a common understanding between demolition contractors of various sizes and experience levels and a deeply rooted need for contractors to make investments in workforce training and industry education to handle the immense backlog of potential projects.
Several pieces of much-discussed legislation — including a federal Green New Deal and aggressive state legislation seen in places like Oregon — propose the nationwide decommissioning of the “dirtiest” or least efficient nonrenewable energy power plants, namely coal-fired power plants but not excluding nuclear power plants, within a 10-year time frame. But what bills such as these fail to consider is whether or not the industry has the bandwidth for an undertaking of such monumental scale.
Did anyone think to ask the demolition professionals themselves — the workers who would be exclusively tasked with carrying out the complex and dangerous work — whether or not they had the equipment, resources, experience, teams or capacity to even handle it?
We did. And in our collaboration with NDA, we surveyed 50 demolition contractors to get their thoughts and insight into what they believe is necessary to make an undertaking of this scope remotely feasible.
We asked a series of straightforward questions in our effort to find a consensus:
- Do you believe that enough demolition companies exist today to safely and completely remediate and demolish every power plant in the United States within 10 years?
- If not, how long would this project take? And what would need to change within the industry to make it possible?
- Is the existing talent pool large enough? If not, how much larger would it need to be?
The more we heard back from members of the demolition community, the more that a lack of a consensus about the project’s feasibility came to light, as did ongoing issues regarding lack of training and investments in workforce development. And the more we had discussions with multi-decade industry veterans like Total Wrecking and Environmental’s Frank Bodami and AECOM’s Tim Barker, the more we learned about workforce deficiencies and safety concerns that continue to cast a long shadow over an industry at a crossroads.
Yes or No
There are around 4,500 demolition companies of every shape, size, specialty and experience level in the United States, employing over 25,000 professionals. We began by asking them if they believed a 10-year timeline was feasible.
It’s important to keep in mind what an iron grip these nonrenewable power sources still have on the nation’s infrastructure. Coal-fired power stations constitute a massive share of the power plants across the U.S. and produce roughly 23% of the nation’s energy. The other major nonrenewable energy source our nation produces, nuclear, comes in a close second at 20% of overall energy across the United States. Not included are natural gas-fired power plants, an increasingly popular and efficient yet still nonrenewable energy source, responsible for the largest portion of the nation’s energy consumption at nearly 38% and far outnumbering the total number of both coal-fired and nuclear power plant facilities across the country combined.
The first question posed to the 50 respondents of our NDA survey — “Do you believe that enough demolition companies exist today to safely and completely remediate and demolish every power plant in the United States in 10 years?” — produced a split initial response: half of the contractors believe it’s possible, half do not.
The second question zoomed in on one of the industry’s widest held concerns (even outside the context of this proposed bill) regarding the size, experience and capacity of its current workforce. After all, the demolition contractors who constitute NDA’s nationwide network seems like a formidable army to give the hypothetical undertaking a fighting chance. But looking deeper within each company, do all 4,500 companies constitute a qualified and capable workforce of professionals with the experience, bandwidth, training and skill sets to actually carry out the extremely complex and hazardous work?
When we asked if the existing talent pool of trained and certified demolition and remediation contractors was large enough to safely and completely remediate and demolish every power plant in the United States within 10 years, the answers began to skew: 70% responded that the workforce was not big enough.
Which begs the question, how much larger would the demolition workforce need to be? Keep in mind, we can infer from the previous question that 30% of respondents do, in fact, believe the workforce is currently sufficient. However, when we asked the same respondents how much bigger they believed the workforce would need to be, only 19% reiterated that its existing size was adequate. Fifty-one percent of respondents believed the workforce would need to be at least twice as big as it currently is to make this even remotely possible. The other 30% believed it needed to be around 50% larger.
The lack of a consensus only grew more apparent as answers seemed to identify a rather ﬂuid understanding of the ambitious demands of aggressive legislation outlined in bills like the Green New Deal and the all-hands-on-deck strain it would put on contractors nationwide.
Recognizing the trend of responses becoming increasingly pessimistic the more we zoomed in on granular details, we asked them to assign their own realistic timeline to the project. We asked, “If every existing and reputable large-scale demolition contractor commenced work on this initiative today, how long do you believe it would take?” Thirty-six percent believed that it would take between 15 and 25 years. Thirty-two percent said upwards of 15 years, while 21% believed it would take 25 years or more. Only 10% held on to the possibility that it could be completed in 10 years or less.
Can Existing Demolition Contractors Handle This?
NDA’s last version of a demolition contractor census was in October of 2019, when they counted just north of 4,500 demolition companies registered across the United States. At first blush, that seems like a formidable army of professionals to tackle the wide-scale dismantling required.
Bodami, who leads one of the country’s largest and most experienced industrial power plant demolition companies, Total Wrecking and Environmental, believes that only a small group of the 4,500 listed contractors across the United States realistically have the size, expertise, equipment, infrastructure and training to safely navigate the innumerable complexities of a power plant demolition.
“The vast majority of demolition contractors are residential or commercial,” Bodami says. “They will have a complicated learning curve to safely handle this type of work, especially with the diminishing talent pool and time constraints on closures.”
For Total Wrecking and Environmental, the safe remediation, demolition and redevelopment of smaller energy sites that power factories, mills or schools take, on average, six to eight months to complete. Bigger industrial power plants, however, like the ones that power entire cities, can monopolize most of the company’s available resources and require one to three years to complete.
“Taking on too many large projects for any single contractor can be dangerous, even for the largest of companies,” Bodami says. “Safe demolitions require control, a strong and experienced talent pool, and competent core employees who strictly adhere to their company’s core safety culture. These types of projects cannot be performed safely with any company’s B-team.”
Employing Bodami’s perspective that only a limited number of companies in the United States have the proper experience, training and qualifications to handle the largest-scale power plant demolitions means that the mammoth task at hand falls on fewer shoulders.
It’s difficult to get a firm read on precisely how many power plants would need to come ofﬂine to make the United States’ source of energy completely renewable, especially with such a mix of metrics between “units,” “unique sites/projects” and power plants themselves. Part of the difficulty in making informed estimates about future demolition prospects — as well as a huge contributing factor to the lack of cohesive understanding within the industry — is the fact that these metrics are seemingly used and referenced interchangeably, both in the Energy Information Administration’s (EIA’s) analyses and within general industry conversations.
That said, and independently of our research, informal industry estimates place the current number of planned coal-powered decommissioning projects over the next 10 years at roughly 100.
According to the most recent data from the EIA about existing coal-powered plants and planned decommissionings, there are 140 units scheduled to go ofﬂine between 2020 and 2045. That leaves 530 coal-powered units still fully operational and in need of safe dismantling. (It’s worth noting that 2019’s data was not formalized until late 2020, so this is the most recent data available.)
Tasking the qualified and capable minority of existing contractors with the decommissioning of every nonrenewable energy power plant over 10 years would require that each contractor complete ongoing and simultaneous top-to-bottom, large-scale demolitions and remediations. By our loose estimates, that would mean each contractor is handling multiple overlapping demolition projects at varying stages at any given time, a task that would need to be relentlessly sustained during the sprint to a 10-year finish.
Companies like Total Wrecking and Environmental and other experienced and well-equipped industrial contractors in the country are no stranger to handling multiple large-scale projects simultaneously. But the environmental and safety complexities of the largest-scale power plant demolitions are enough to consume a large swath of any contractor’s resources and bandwidth. Balancing several largescale power plant demolitions, while not impossible, would conceivably monopolize most of their resources for years. A task of that mammoth in scope could conceivably overburden a contractor’s resources and, by extension, the industry itself.
If this small group of large-scale industrial demolition contractors got to work with the resources, equipment and workforce available today, Bodami believes that it would take closer to 20 years to completely dismantle and remediate every nonrenewable power plant. The response from our NDA
member respondents landed on almost the exact same average.
But there’s a problem with this math: It doesn’t account for smaller-scale demolitions that the everyday working world requires. This assumes everyone is working exclusively on power plant demolitions and none of the community projects, small-to-midsize cleanups and other demolitions that need to be managed and handled simultaneously.
The Workforce Issue
There has been a decades-long decline within the workforce as millennials and those in Generation Z increasingly opt for tech-oriented, white-collar work, regardless of their educational history. Massive initiatives at NDA — including the “Foundations of Demolition Management” series that’s already responsible for training over 200 professionals, a superintendent boot camp and hands-on equipment safety and maintenance training — are making huge strides to correct the industry’s course and ensure a safer, more thoroughly populated future.
It’s not as if companies like Total Wrecking and Environmental don’t have the experience and managerial capacity to certify and train industrial professionals; young people, seemingly, just aren’t interested in entering the demolition industry. Meanwhile, the existing talent pool continues to age out. This is a clear issue across the construction industry as a whole, not just the industrial demolition sector. There is a dramatic lack of professionals willing to do the work, much less interested in training to do the work.
A lack of young and upcoming workers has been a serious threat to the industrial demolition industry since 2010, but this one-way trend has been decades in the making. Currently, there are no industrial demolition recruitment tables found in any high schools. There is little to no formalized curriculum at any established higher-education institutions (a demolition sub-major did brieﬂy exist at Purdue University but has since been discontinued). Industrial demolition is a highly qualified and specialized craft that requires extensive training but otherwise has few barriers of entry.
NDA’s recently bolstered training and education, and the creation of a new certification program, seeks to remedy this. “We think a rising tide will lift all boats,” says NDA President Scott Homrich. “It will help contractors stay safe and position their workforce with the skills necessary to perform work on time and win work.” NDA recognizes and continues to actively address these issues, and the new strategic plan the organization launched tackles the lack of work development training programs head-on.
“Certification and training for our membership, coupled with outreach to customers, owners and developers, will position the industry for long-term success,” Homrich says. “A new certification board, greater alliance with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the creation of new pre-apprentice training and workforce development programs offer promise.”
Tim Barker, project manager at engineering consulting firm AECOM, believes the workforce needs to be “not larger, just better.” He elaborated that “training, developing and safely leading the great resources we currently have in this industry” coupled with “third-party demolition oversight utilizing a proven safe D&D risk mitigation process” can help preserve safety while making this aggressive goal more achievable.
Still, with an irrefutable lack of incoming youth and a generation of multi-decade professionals continuing to age out at an increasingly high rate, demolition projects are largely left to existing professionals, and their lateral moves from company to company has become a problem of its own. “NDA is implementing new programs for our current workforce, which is a great step in the right direction,” Bodami says. “However, I feel a grassroots effort to provide visibility to parents of the younger generation is needed to educate them on the benefits and opportunities within our industry.”
Bodami believes the total industry workforce would need an additional 500 people to populate its ranks at every level. And he doesn’t mean the industry needs 500 young and hungry recruits with freshly printed GEDs or bachelor’s degrees, although that would be tremendously helpful in invigorating a scalable, longer-term workforce; he means 500 project managers, equipment operators, mechanics, welders, superintendents, safety supervisors, high burners, tradesmen, general contractors and so on. The labor-inﬂux solution to the ailing industry’s deficit problem is, unfortunately, not exclusive to any specific part of the workforce. No demolition contractor we spoke with had an issue with the idea that the necessary equipment could be sourced, gathered and assembled in time. But to make this project even remotely feasible, the industry needs people. Everywhere.
Given that deep and insurmountable barrier, a common consensus among most of the demolition contractors we spoke to was that providing only 10 years to complete a task of these proportions is unrealistic unless contractors invest in training and workforce development. Which begs the next question: What is a reasonable timeline to complete an effective shutdown of coal-fried and nuclear power plants across the country?
How Long Would It Take?
To thoughtfully calculate a realistic timeline requires at least a basic understanding of the rough numbers of existing power plants. How many power plants are we talking about here?
Coal-fired power plants are gargantuan facilities responsible for powering entire cities and grids. The last verified count completed by the EIA was from 2019 and counted 308 coal-fired power plants and 58 nuclear power plants.
These counts, however, don’t necessarily translate to “unique sites.” It’s not uncommon for power plants to have multiple energy sources, and the EIA’s calculation is based on the predominant energy source for one or more generators on a given site. That means if a “natural gas power plant” that produces predominantly natural gas-powered energy has one or more generators also producing coal fired energy, that power plant will be counted as both a natural gas power plant and a coal-fired power plant.
Power plants can also change their energy sources. In recent years, it’s in the interest of using more efficient natural resources, like natural gas, to produce “cleaner” energy that isn’t renewable or “green” but significantly more environmentally friendly than coal or nuclear energies. While some nonrenewable energy facilities do undergo sitewide retrofittings, it’s more common for nonrenewable plants to decommission generators producing certain types of nonrenewable energy, modify them to produce more efficient or renewable energies, or install new generators producing different types of energy altogether. All of these possible facility retrofittings, compounded by regular status code changes, have a significant impact on previously posted data year to year.
In other words, it’s encouraging to look at the EIA’s table of industrial power plants and see that the number of coal plants has decreased from 589 in 2011 to 308 in 2019. That’s a huge shift in the right direction. Of that 281 difference, however, NDA clarified that only 164 coal-powered decommissioning projects have been completed, while the remaining 117 sites have been converted to burn other types of fuel. That’s still an objectively admirable decrease in nonrenewable energy reliance and a show of the industry’s capacity to facilitate a massive transition to more efficient energy sources. But considering the hundreds of coal-powered and nuclear plants that remain online, exponentially more work would need to be done in roughly the same period of time to meet legislative agendas.
Looking at the year ahead, nuclear reactors comprise half of 2021’s nuclear plant retirements, with five reactors across three sites scheduled for decommissioning. That represents roughly 5% of the current overall U.S. nuclear generating capacity, a sizable decline that the EIA claims is a direct result of historically low prices for natural gas, stagnant growth in overall electricity demands and increasing competition from renewable energy sources. Coal has a less dramatic upcoming year, with roughly 1% of current capacity scheduled for retirement, primarily because of age (on average, coal units are retired at around 51 years old).
The EIA reports that more than 30 GW worth of announced retirements are planned between now and 2024, with total coal-fired U.S. generating capacity dropping to 200 GW by 2024. Additionally, they expect retrofitting or retirement of 60-100 GW of capacity by then, which amounts to roughly 100 coal-fired units over the next five years.
Elsewhere, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Agency has project management responsibilities for 23 nuclear power reactors undergoing decommissioning. This will certainly keep the industrial demolition business booming, but these numbers are still well short of what sweeping legislation such as the Green New Deal would require. And considering that the largest coal-fired plants often require one to two entire years to completely remediate, dismantle and redevelop, we’re looking at an undertaking far beyond the closures and retrofittings already planned between now and 2024.
At the current rate, it’ll be decades before nonrenewable energy plants have been retired industrywide.
There’s undeniable strength in numbers, and while the vast network of demolition companies might seem impressive at first blush, the limited number of qualified contractors and their ever-dwindling workforce makes a 10-year deadline difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. To meet the demand, every contractor will need to earnestly invest in training and workforce development. NDA’s upcoming certification program, as well as its training and education program are steps in the right direction and represent initiatives that every contractor should consider investing in. Bodami provided expert insight into what may be holding the industry back from accomplishing a task of this magnitude. Our questions to the larger demolition community may have lacked a clear consensus, but in the process they shone a light on the contractors’ varied expectations and shared shortcomings.
NDA’s upcoming certification program, as well as its training and education program are steps in the right direction and represent initiatives that every contractor should consider investing in. Bodami provided expert insight into what may be holding the industry back from accomplishing a task of this magnitude. Our questions to the larger demolition community may have lacked a clear consensus, but in the process they shone a light on the contractors’ varied expectations and shared shortcomings.