Exploring the trend of stream sulfate concentrations as U.S. power plants shift from coal to shale gas

Xianzeng Niu, Tao Wen, Susan L. Brantley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Since the early 2000s, an increasing number of power plants in the U.S. have switched from burning coal to burning gas and thus have released less SO2 emissions into the atmosphere. We investigated whether stream chemistry (i.e., SO42−) also benefits from this transition. Using publicly available data from Pennsylvania (PA), a U.S. state with heavy usage of coal as fuel, we found that the impact of SO2 emissions on stream SO42− can be observed as far as 63 km from power plants. We developed a novel model that incorporates an emission-control technology trend for coal-fired power plants to quantify potentially avoided SO2 emissions and stream SO42− as power plants switched from coal to gas. The results show that, if 30% of the electricity generated by coal in PA in 2017 had been replaced by that from natural gas, a total of 20.3 thousand tons of SO2 emissions could have been avoided and stream SO42− concentrations could have decreased as much as 10.4%. Extrapolating the model to other states in the U.S., we found that as much as 46.1 thousand tons of SO2 emissions per state could have been avoided for a similar 30% coal-to-gas switch, with potential amelioration of water quality near power plants. The emission-control technology trend model provides a valuable tool for policy makers to assess the benefits of coal-to-gas shifts on water quality improvements as well as the effectiveness of emission control technologies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number117102
JournalEnvironmental Pollution
StatePublished - Sep 1 2021


  • Coal
  • Natural gas
  • Power plant
  • SO emissions
  • Stream SO Concentration
  • Technology trend model

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Toxicology
  • Pollution
  • Health, Toxicology and Mutagenesis


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