SACE | Southern Alliance for Clean Energy
State Energy Overview
From the Tennessee River Valley to the Gulf of Mexico, Alabama is blessed with rich natural resources. Unfortunately, challenging politics and poor energy planning oversight have left the state behind others in the region in making a clean energy transition. The Clean Air Task Force estimates that each year, 200 Alabama hospital admissions, 377 heart attacks, and 296 deaths can be attributed to air pollution from coal burning alone. Fortunately, the state has potential to benefit from both energy efficiency and renewable energy, and some exciting projects are in the works.
Energy Efficiency: In 2012, Alabama was ranked 40th in the nation in energy efficiency and had the second highest bills in the country. There has been limited leadership on energy efficiency, and in 2012, the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA) returned a half million dollar grant to support energy efficiency in the state to the federal Department of Energy due to “one of the largest utilities in the state and the Alabama Public Service Commission” being hesitant or unwilling to participate in the process.
Alabama Power’s statement on energy efficiency is that “Alabama Power does not support arbitrary energy reduction targets. Energy efficiency is not using less kilowatt-hours, but the reduction of customers’ total energy cost. Alabama Power works with customers to assist them in becoming as efficient as possible.” Further, Alabama Power is saving very little energy with its energy efficiency programs: around 0.02% of retail sales in 2011, much lower than other Southern Company subsidiaries.
The Tennessee Valley Authority provides electricity to 17 counties in northern Alabama. Customers in these regions have access to a slate of energy efficiency programs offered by TVA under the name “EnergyRight Solutions.” These programs are available through the municipal and cooperative utilities in Alabama served by TVA. While information about the success of these programs has been hard to gather, there is one clear standout. Huntsville Utilities has led the TVA service territory with its success in delivering the EnergyRight Solutions New Homes program.
Solar: Despite its geographic location in the southeastern U.S., Alabama is ranked at the very bottom of the country in solar installations. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, the 2 MW of solar installed at the end of 2014 ranks the state 44th overall, and in 2014 the state ranked 49th in new installations with only 0.11 MW added that year. However, large-scale solar installations are poised to ramp up significantly with approval by the Public Service Commission in September 2015 to allow Alabama Power to purchase up to 500 MW of renewable and “environmentally specialized generation” (combined heat and power, landfill gas), which the company states will largely consist of solar. The Company may invest in projects up to 80 MW in size, up to a total of 160 MW per year.
Solar is also ramping up in the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) region of Alabama. In 2015, TVA announced plans to build a new Google data center in Northern Alabama on the site of the former Widows Creek coal plant. The center will be powered by 100% renewable energy, possibly from the 80 MW River Bend Solar Project to be built in neighboring Lauderdale County, AL by NextEra Energy. However, challenges to solar remain, particularly in the rooftop solar market, where Alabama Power levies a monthly $5 per kilowatt charge per month – one of the highest in the country, and a significant economic deterrent to customers who want to install their own solar systems. Political support and leadership is crucial for Alabama to fully open the market for solar and fulfill its solar potential.
Wind: The latest studies from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) show significant wind potential in Alabama. New advances in wind turbine technology that can efficiently produce power from more moderate wind speeds promise enticing opportunities in Alabama. With these new wind turbines,16,000 megawatts (MW) of land-based wind potential currently exist in Alabama. Developing just 1,000 MW of wind power in Alabama (just one-sixteenth of Alabama’s potential) could provide enough power for 255,000 homes a year!
Alabama Power, which serves about 2/3 of the electric load in the state, agreed in 2012 to buy 404MW of wind energy generated in Oklahoma and Kansas, saying that the wind energy would be more affordable than other sources. Pioneer Green Energy planned to build an 18MW wind farm in Cherokee County and an 80MW wind farm in Etowah County but state legislators passed bills stopping them in 2014.
Other renewables: According to NREL estimates, if Alabama tapped just 1% of its total renewable potential (from solar, wind, biomass, geothermal, and hydro), it would add 22GW of electric capacity — nearly double the installed coal generation capacity in the state. Solar energy is starting to take off in parts of the state served by TVA, but Alabama Power’s surcharge of about $20 per month to connect an average size residential solar array has deterred many of its customers.
Coal: Alabama is historically one of the most coal-dependent states in the nation; according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, Alabama spends more money per capita to import coal than any other state, despite also mining its own coal (most of what is mined in state is of a type used in steel production and is exported). In 2013, burning coal accounted for about 33% of power generated in the state, down from 51% in 2010 and 62.3% in 2000. Coal burning has been reduced due to many factors, especially the low price of natural gas, which accounted for 35% of power produced in 2012. Despite this reduction, Alabama’s largest utility, Alabama Power, lags behind others in the region in phasing out its oldest, dirtiest coal plants. In August 2014, it announced its first coal plant retirement – two smaller generators at Plant Gorgas. It will also be converting units from coal to natural gas at its Greene County, Gaston, and Barry plants.
Alabama’s coal plant fleet is aging. Many of its plants lack modern pollution controls; several of the generators were built in the 1950s and 60s, produce far more air pollution than plants with modern controls, and are overdue for retirement.
Toxic coal ash left over after coal is burned at these plants threatens waterways across the state. Alabama is home to nine active coal fired power plants, with onsite storage facilities containing a total of 28 billion gallons of coal ash. Many of these are little more than unlined pits located next to waterways where the coal ash can pollute water used for drinking, fishing and recreation. According to EPA’s records five of these sites pose a significant hazard to nearby communities and one is rated high hazard. Despite this threat, Alabama lacks basic regulations to safeguard communities and waterways from coal ash pollution.
Please visit SoutheastCoalAsh.org to learn more about coal ash in Alabama and see an interactive map of ash sites. To learn more about coal’s share of energy production in Alabama, see our page Alabama Coal Plants.
Alabama is also home to some of the nation’s leading research on carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology at the National Carbon Capture Center in Wilsonville. Alabama Power’s Plant Barry is one of the first implementation projects, but if successful will only capture less than 4% of carbon dioxide from the plant.
Nuclear: Alabama is home to two active nuclear power plants and one under construction.
The Tennessee Valley Authority’s troubled 3-reactor Browns Ferry plant along the Tennessee River has experienced many problems since it began operating in 1974. Over the past several summers, the droughts plaguing the region have negatively impacted the plant’s ability to operate reliably, in some cases causing TVA to either power back or shut down reactors in order to prevent violating thermal discharge requirements. Read more about it in the Energy & Water in Warming World (EW3) report.
In 2008, TVA revived plans to construct two long-abandoned reactors at its Bellefonte site in Hollywood, AL, after they were mothballed in 1988 and cannibalized for parts in 2006. Finishing construction of the reactors, which began in 1974, is expected to cost at least $7-9 billion. (TVA suspended plans to build two Toshiba-Westinghouse AP1000 reactors at the site.) We are seriously concerned about the safety of reviving a nearly 40-year-old nuclear construction that has experienced lapses in maintenance and visits from demolition crews untrained in nuclear safety. You can learn more about Bellefonte on our Take Action page.
Alabama Power, a subsidiary of the Southern Company, has operated the 1776 MW Joseph M. Farley nuclear plant along the Chattahoochee River near Dothan, AL since 1977.