Georgia leads nation in power from outdated coal units

hduncan@macon.comNovember 13, 2012 

Georgia tops all other states for the amount of power it generates from coal-burning units that are “ripe for retirement” because they aren’t cost-effective, according to a Union of Concerned Scientists report issued Tuesday.

The report compared the cost of upgrading pollution controls at old coal-fired units to the cost of shutting down those units and switching to natural gas or cleaner sources such as wind power.

In Georgia, the report identified 22 coal units, which can produce 34.7 million megawatt hours of electricity a year, that should be shut down at Crisp, Mitchell, Kraft, Harlee Branch, Bowen, Hammond and Yates power plants. All but one are owned by Georgia Power.

The report also claims that 60 percent are less cost-effective than natural gas even without the cost of improving their pollution controls.

Monroe County’s Plant Scherer, one of the largest coal-fired power plants in the nation, was not listed in the report. Report co-author Jeff Deyette said Scherer, which began power production in the mid-1980s, is newer and more efficient than most Georgia plants. And Georgia Power has upgraded Scherer’s units to include many of the pollution controls suggested.

But Deyette added, “We didn’t look at coal ash or water cooling, which could drive coal plants toward less economic competitiveness.” Scherer has one of the largest coal ash waste ponds in the country and could be affected by new rules being contemplated by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

“So we wouldn’t necessarily say that because it passes our test, Scherer is going to be economic and profitable to operate in the long run,” Deyette said.

The Union of Concerned Scientists calculated a range of potential plant closures based on various federal wind power incentives and a range of natural gas prices. Between 153 and 353 of the nation’s 1,169 units should be shut down, the report said.

This would have a limited effect on the electrical grid because these units are inefficient anyway, Deyette said. For example, the Georgia coal units identified in the report only operate at full capacity 58 percent of the time.

The Union of Concerned Scientists maintains that the closures also would reduce greenhouse gas emissions as well as incidences of asthma, bronchitis, and premature deaths from heart and lung disease and stroke.

The coal-fired units that the report said should be shut down are clustered in the Southeast.

The report identifies Southern Co., the parent company of Georgia Power, as the biggest offender in the nation.

“Southern Company has by far the most generation capacity deemed ripe for retirement -- 15.6 gigawatts -- but has announced less than 1.4 gigawatts of plant closures,” the report states.

Those include two units scheduled for closure next year at Plant Branch near Milledgeville. Although company officials have publicly stated the remaining two units there won’t be needed after 2015, they won’t confirm whether the entire plant will close.

Georgia Power spokesman Mark Williams said the company will evaluate all economic factors, as well as anticipated environmental regulations, next year when it decides on its power generation mix during a required planning process.

If maintaining old coal plants is more expensive, why would Georgia Power or Southern Co. do it?

“A company like Southern Company can simply pass on the cost of retrofitting to ratepayers and continue to earn the same rate of return for is shareholders,” Deyette said.

Ulla Reeves, regional program director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said the findings in the report “bolster our concerns that ratepayers are shouldering an unfair bias that (Georgia Power) has toward coal.”

“We need the Georgia Public Service Commission to work more assertively to ensure that Georgia Power’s energy planning truly benefits the people of the state and not just the pocketbook of the company,” Reeves said at a telephone news conference Tuesday.

Williams said the company’s first priority is to act in the best interest of its customers, and second is to retain a diverse mix of energy sources.

To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.

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