http://www.cleanenergy.org/2013/10/16/alabama-coal-plants/

SACE | Southern Alliance for Clean Energy

Alabama Coal Plants

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Coal has powered Alabama for more than a century. But as we take steps to protect our land, our water, and our health, and as less expensive alternatives become available, it’s time to move away from coal.

CATF_AL_map

Clean Air Task Force map of SO2 health impacts

Alabama’s coal plants are old – the oldest generator turned 64 in 2013, and the median age of generating units is 53 (plants are generally intended to last for 30 years) – and dirty. Many lack modern air pollution controls for sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and mercury, and are operating with outdated water pollution permits that do not meet new clean water act provisions. (Click the map on the left to learn more about health impacts from sulfur dioxide emissions.) The plants dumped about 52 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in 2012, roughly equivalent to 11 million cars. Leading the pack was Alabama Power’s James H. Miller plant, which is the second largest carbon polluter in the nation.

toxic-coal-ash-spills-photo-007Most Alabama coal plants store their coal ash, which contains toxic heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, mercury, selenium, cadmium, chromium, and even radioactive material, in unlined ponds without monitoring of nearby groundwater or rivers. As of 2010, Alabama’s plants released more toxic material into ash ponds than any other state. In some cases, these ponds are held back by earthen impoundments that would cause serious hazard to human life if they were to break like the Kingston dam failure in 2008. To learn about the risks of coal ash at individual plants, please visit www.SoutheastCoalAsh.org, click on a plant and navigate to the “Plant Details” tab below the map, or click the links in the Plant Profiles below.

Operating these plants is becoming more expensive as competing technologies such as wind and natural gas become more affordable. Utilities in neighboring Georgia and Tennessee are evaluating the cost of upgrading coal plants with modern pollution controls and, in many cases, determining that it is less expensive to phase the plant out and get power from another, cleaner source. Alabama is home to more coal-based generating capacity that is “ripe for retirement” than any other state, according to data in a 2012 Union of Concerned Scientists report (Georgia was first at the time, but has since planned to retire several generators). Due to these market conditions, TVA is retiring its Widows Creek plant and its Colbert plant in northwestern Alabama. Despite similar ages for some of its plants, Alabama Power Alabama Power has yet to follow suit except for two small, older units at Plant Gorgas and a handful of gas conversions.

Unfortunately, the Alabama Public Service Commission does not require Alabama Power, the only electric utility it oversees, to disclose its cost-benefit analysis, and we are concerned that unnecessary costs to upgrade its old plants are being passed on to ratepayers. This risk will grow as the plants continue to age; no one knows exactly how much it costs to maintain 70+ year old plants, because most are retiring or converting to burn natural gas.

Converting Plants from Coal to Gas

Alabama Power plans to retrofit several generators at a handful of its plants to burn natural gas rather than coal, following a trend of inexpensive gas prices. While burning gas will reduce some air and water pollution, “fuel switching” concerns us for several reasons. First, it requires expensive new infrastructure (including gas pipelines in the case of Plant Gaston) without a cost-benefit analysis. Second, burning natural gas in a coal boiler is much less efficient than burning it in a plant originally designed for gas. Finally, there is no guarantee that if gas prices rise, the generators will not be converted back to burning dirty coal.

Sources of APCO Coal_weightCoal Mining versus Burning Coal

Alabama does mine and export coal, but most of what is mined is not burned to make electricity in the state. Most of what is burned is imported from other states and even South America. Between 2008-2012, Alabama annually imported about 22 million tons of coal, at a cost of $1.7 billion. Only 24% of coal burned in Alabama came from in-state mines.

The coal that is mined in Alabama is mostly metallurgical grade, which is processed into coke and used to smelt steel. Only 36% of the coal produced in Alabama is burned there for electricity.

You can learn more by reading this blog.

Plant Profiles

Note that each plant has several “units”, or generators, which may not all have been constructed at the same time. Unless noted otherwise, generators referred to here are all still certified to operate, though they may not be fired up very often. Annual health impacts are based on Clean Air Task Force 2010 figures and carbon pollution estimates are from 2012 figures reported to the EPA.

Colbert
colbertOwner: Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA)
Power capacity: 1350 MW
River basin: Middle Tennessee
Generators came online: 1955-1965
Coal ash: High hazard to human life if dam fails. 2.3 billion gallons, 132 acres
Deaths due to air pollution: 57
Asthma attacks due to air pollution: 940
Carbon dioxide: 3.7 million tons
Coal Source: Colorado, Utah, Wyoming
TVA plans to retire Plant Colbert by June 30, 2016.

Gorgas
Gorgas_smOwner: Alabama Power
Power capacity: 1417 MW
River basin: Black Warrior
Generators came online: 1951-72
Coal ash: Significant Hazard to property and environment if dam fails. 3.8 billion gallons, 441 acres.
Deaths due to air pollution: 81
Asthma attacks due to air pollution: 1400
Carbon Dioxide: 3.2 million tons
Coal Source: Indiana, Alabama
Toxic coal waste has been piling up at Gorgas since 1951.
Alabama Power Plans to retire the two oldest units at Plant Gorgas, leaving three active generators.

 

Widows Creek
widows-creek-300x199Owner: Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA)
Power capacity: 844 MW
River basin: Middle Tennessee
Generators came online: 1961-65 (retiring generators online 1952-54)
Coal Ash: High hazard to human life if dam fails. 7.4 billion gallons, 420 acres
Deaths due to air pollution: 93
Asthma attacks due to air pollution: 1500
Carbon Dioxide: 5 million tons
Coal Source: Kentucky, Illinois, Colorado
TVA is retiring all units at Widows Creek, and a solar farm will be built on the site to power a nearby data center.

Greene County

Nelson Brooke, Black Warrior Riverkeeper; flight provided by Southwings.org

Photo (c) Nelson Brooke, Black Warrior Riverkeeper; flight provided by Southwings.org

Owner: Alabama Power
Power capacity: 586 MW
River basin: Black Warrior
Generators came online: 1965-66
Coal Ash: Significant hazard, 1.7 billion gallons, 474 acres.
Deaths due to air pollution: 33
Asthma attacks due to air pollution: 550
Carbon Dioxide: 2.4 million tons
Coal Source: Colombia, Indiana, Alabama, Kentucky
The Greene County plant is slated for conversion to burn natural gas.

Barry

Photo (c) John L. Wathen, Hurricane Creekkeeper. Flight provided by Southwings.org

Photo (c) John L. Wathen, Hurricane Creekkeeper. Flight provided by Southwings.org

Owner: Alabama Power
Power capacity: 1770 MW
River basin: Mobile/Tombigbee
Coal Ash: Significant hazard, 1.9 billion gallons, 597 acres
Deaths due to air pollution: 50
Asthma attacks due to air pollution: 840
Carbon Dioxide: 6 million tons
Coal Source: Colombia, Indiana, Alabama
Plant Barry is one of the top 20 plants nationally with the most toxic material behind its ash dam.

E. C. Gaston

Photo (c) Frank Chitwood, Coosa Riverkeeper

Photo (c) Frank Chitwood, Coosa Riverkeeper

Owner: Alabama Power
Power Capacity: 2013 MW
River Basin: Coosa
Coal Ash: 6.1 billion gallons in unlined pond
Deaths due to air pollution: 73
Asthma attacks due to air pollution: 1,200
Carbon Dioxide: 9.1 million tons
Coal Source: Alabama, Colorado, Indiana, Illinois
Despite dubious cost projections, Georgia Power, which uses half the power from the plant, secured approval to convert four generators at Gaston to inefficiently burn natural gas rather than retire the plant. Alabama Power, for its part, does not need approval to spend funds on the conversion.

Gadsden

Gadsden

Photo (c) Frank Chitwood, Coosa Riverkeeper

Owner: Alabama Power
Power capacity: 138 MW
River basin: Coosa
Generators came online: 1949
Coal ash: Significant hazard, 245 million gallons, 68 acres
Carbon dioxide: 218,000 tons
As of 2012, the Gadsden plant was fuel switched to burn natural gas. However, it retains the capability of burning coal. This smaller, older, downtown plant provides power and steam for the nearby Goodyear Tire factory. Its coal ash is stored alongside the river just upstream of the city drinking water intake.

Charles R. Lowman
Owner: Power South Energy Cooperative
Power capacity: 538 MW
River basin: Lower Tombigbee
Generators came online: 1969-80
Coal Ash: Hazard level unrated, 560 million gallons
Deaths due to air pollution: 17
Asthma attacks due to air pollution: 290
Carbon Dioxide: 2.3 million tons
Coal Source: Alabama, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois