ATLANTA -- What would happen to Plant Scherer if the federal government decides to implement carbon dioxide pollution cuts isn’t settled, according to Georgia Power. It will all depend on the final shape of the rule and if coal is taken out of play.
Burning coal to create electricity is one of the “arrows in the quiver” that it takes to create reliable, affordable energy for their customers, said Ron Shipman, Georgia Power’s vice president of environmental affairs, after Tuesday hearings in Atlanta held by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
“What this (proposed) rule does, it takes one of those arrows out of the quiver and one of those arrows is coal. ... We’d like to keep that arrow in the quiver,” he said.
The utility has not yet analyzed what the draft rule would mean for Scherer or any of its other plants, he said, because the rule could change a lot between now and when the rule would be enforced.
The federal EPA’s proposal would have Georgia cut the carbon intensity of its power generation from 1,500 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour of electricity in 2012 to 834 pounds by 2030. Two nuclear power units under construction at Plant Vogtle on the Savannah River would contribute to the drop.
The only cost Shipman ventured was $4 billion to $5 billion over about a decade for energy efficiency measures, such as the rebates Georgia Power sometimes pays to customers switching to more energy-efficient appliances.
Plant Scherer is one of the biggest coal power plants in the country. In part because of its size, it’s also tops for carbon dioxide emissions, a gas that the EPA says drives climate change. Scherer meets the rules for controlling nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, mercury and particulates, but the EPA proposal would be the first nationwide rule on carbon dioxide emissions to apply to existing power plants.
That might cause utilities to shift away from coal and more toward natural gas generation, a fuel with a lower carbon intensity.
It’s been a fairly cheap fuel lately compared to coal. But if coal is out, said Shipman, “no matter what gas prices do, our customers would be at the mercy of that fluctuation in price,” he said, specifying that it could be cheap or it could be pricey.
About 2.4 million Georgians get their power from Georgia Power. The electric membership corporations that serve the rest of Georgia get most of their power from either Georgia Power plants, or they co-own plants with the big utility.
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has said her agency knows that coal and natural gas play a significant role in the country’s energy mix. But she has also said there are opportunities to move toward nuclear, wind and solar power.
“If coal is taken out of the mix, the price goes up” for customers, said Flint Energies Senior Vice President Jimmy Autry. He estimated the price rise at 15 to 30 percent.
“I meet people who can’t pay their bills now,” much less pay a higher price, he said.
Autry’s also worried about a run on natural gas. Due to demand on one cold day this January, he said, utilities were “dangerously close” to not being able to power everybody.
“If we lose more coal generation ... then there may not be electricity at any price,” he said.
In 2013, Georgia Power announced plans to close some of its coal- and oil-fired units, including Plant Branch in Milledgeville.
Larry Warthen, president of the Washington County-based Fall-line Alliance for a Clean Environment, favors the proposed rule, in part because two of his grandchildren have asthma, he said.
“No child should have limited access to enjoy the great outdoors and do the normal things that kids do without an inhaler,” Warthens told EPA officials at the hearing.
“Right now, we limit mercury, arsenic, lead, soot and other damaging pollutants from coal burning power plants. Please, let’s do the same for carbon pollution,” he said.
Carbon itself is not thought to cause asthma, but it is thought to contribute to higher temperatures which, the EPA says, do trigger smog, asthma and longer allergy seasons.
Washington County farmer Lyle Lansdell said farming is hard enough without “the weather that is made more erratic by global warming.”
Two years ago, she said, the temperature in her area hit 102 degrees in May -- earlier than normal. One year ago, mostly in June, she had 49 inches of rain, when the norm is more like 7 inches for that month.
“Try to imagine growing vegetables and livestock in those two extreme conditions,” she said.
Lansdell said the longer that carbon controls are delayed, the worse the damage would be.
“I believe that human beings are unfortunately short-sighted,” said Lansdell, urging the EPA to adopt the rule.
The public comment period on the rule closes Oct. 16. The EPA is set to make any new rule next June.
To contact writer Maggie Lee, email her at email@example.com.