Out With The Coal, In With The New

Guest Blog | December 21, 2009 | Coal, Energy Policy, Nuclear

Recently in the Southeast we’ve had some exciting announcements about utility plans to begin retiring nocoalredx1and repowering some of their oldest and dirtiest coal plants.  By our estimate, eleven retirements are in the works representing over 25 million tons of annual carbon dioxide emissions.  As the proverbial ‘writing on the wall’ gets clearer that global warming pollutants like carbon dioxide will be regulated nationally in the near future, utility companies are taking old, inefficient coal plants offline in order to make way for cleaner burning, less carbon intensive facilities.

On December 7th EPA announced their decision that carbon dioxide is a public health threat, paving the way to future regulation of carbon as a pollutant. Likewise, the cost of controlling mercury pollution coupled with impending stronger mercury regulations and coal ash regulations makes many of these dirty dinosaur coal plants impossible to justify keeping online.

While coal retirements are certainly good news for clean air and combating global warming, we are unfortunately also seeing a resurgence of interest in replacing these plants with nuclear power, which in some circles is being touted as the ultimate solution to climate change.  Fortunately, many utilities are exploring biomass and natural gas conversions and others are increasing investments in renewables and energy efficiency. This blog is an update on the highlights of the coal retirement news that we know of to-date across the region.

Click map to enlarge

NORTH CAROLINA: The most recent announcement comes from Progress Energy North Carolina on December 1st, 2009 with plans to retire 11 older coal units at 4 different sites by 2017, totaling nearly 1,500MW of power and 30% of the company’s capacity.  Progress currently plans to build new generation capacity with natural gas, namely a new 950MW facility in Wayne County, NC, but vows to remain flexible as prices and environmental requirements advance.

Lloyd Yates, CEO of Progress stated: “Coal-fueled generation will continue to be vital to our ability to meet customer electricity needs.  But as environmental regulations continue to change, and as even more significant rule changes appear likely in the near future, the costs of retrofitting and operating these plants will increase dramatically. We believe this is the right decision for our customers, our state and our company.”

For more details on Progress’ announcement, visit this PR Newswire story.

Still in North Carolina, Duke Energy has made a few similar announcements, although their great claim to shame will forever be constructing a massive new pulverized coal plant, the 825 MW Cliffside facility, during a time in which our country and world are facing one of the greatest crises of our history: global warming.  As part of Duke’s flimsy attempts to green wash Cliffside, they are claiming that by retiring some older units, they will “make Cliffside carbon neutral.”  Keep in mind, the new Cliffside Unit 6 will emit over 6.25 million tons of carbon dioxide annually (325 Million tons over a typical 50-year lifespan) and has only vague future plans to capture and reduce that contribution to global warming.  So, while it is good that the less efficient old units 1-4 will go offline, they only total 200MW of power and are barely the tip of offsetting the new 800 MW facility.

Duke has made additional, voluntary commitments to retire (currently unannounced) units to ultimately add up to the ~800MW of Cliffside Unit 6 with the following schedule: 350 megawatts by Dec. 31, 2015; 200 MW by Dec. 31, 2016; and 250 megawatts by Dec. 31, 2018.   Additional retirements are expected from Duke in the coming years that could total upwards of 1,500 MW.  In South Carolina, Duke plans to retire the Lee Steam Station in Anderson County by 2013 as they convert the facility to natural gas.

Georgia Power’s Plant Mitchell

GEORGIA: Southern Company’s Georgia Power retired 11 small, older units in 2002 totaling 415 MW.  Recently, Georgia Power committed to convert the utility’s 155 megawatt coal-fired Plant Mitchell near Albany, Ga., to burn woody biomass, making it the first biomass plant in the vast generation fleet of Georgia Power parent Southern Co. The generation capacity of Plant Mitchell, with biomass as the fuel source will decrease to 96MW.  In late 2006, Georgia Power also announced plans to retire two, smaller, coal-fueled generating units at Plant McDonough near Smyrna, Georgia totaling 500MW.  They plan to replace those two units with three 840-megawatt combined cycle natural gas units, providing a “larger and cleaner source of energy close to the Metro Atlanta area” when it is complete in 2011.

FLORIDA: In Florida, Progress Energy Florida will close two units at its Crystal River Energy Complex in Citrus County (two of the state’s worst polluting coal-fired generators) when its new Levy County nuclear plant is up and running in 2020.  They are also repowering the Bartow Power Plant (1,200MW) in St. Petersburg to double its output and run on natural gas in combined cycle instead of fuel oil boilers.  Progress is also exploring biomass opportunities with a number of wood waste trials and contracts for power purchase.

Gulf Power is a subsidiary of Southern Company and they are currently doing a lot of testing of co-firing coal with biomass and are evaluating Plant Scholz for conversion of two coal units to biomass.

stacksTENNESSEE: In 2010 the Tennessee Valley Authority is planning to begin building an $820 million gas-powered plant to replace the generation at its 800 MW, 57 year old, John Sevier Plant. The agency has also reduced power production from the oldest six units at their massive, almost 2000 MW facility, Widows Creek.  Unfortunately, TVA has no other clear retirement announcements despite operating some of the nations largest, oldest, and dirtiest coal plants.  Some of the impetus for TVA to retire John Sevier and decrease capacity at Widows Creek comes from the cross-the-border lawsuit in which the North Carolina attorney general claimed TVA’s coal plant pollution was a nuisance to the state’s air quality.

From the Chattanooga Times Free Press in August, 2009:

The 10-unit Johnsonville plant, TVA’s oldest at 60 years of age, was not included in a North Carolina nuisance lawsuit that is forcing TVA to review the future of its 59-year-old Widows Creek plant and the 57-year-old John Sevier plant. Dr. [Stephen] Smith [of Southern Alliance for Clean Energy] said Johnsonville is one of the least efficient coal plants and also should be shut down.

These plants need to be either converted to a cleaner fuel and technology, such as combined-cycle natural gas, or they need to be shut down, he said. “In the carbon-constrained world we are moving into, it no longer makes sense to run these types of old and dirty plants,” Dr. Smith said.

Hopefully we’ll begin to see more coal plant retirements across our region as utilities embrace the new clean energy future and forgo the trappings of our fossil fuel past. This significant directional shift will require bold leadership, a full embrace of energy efficiency measures, and diversification of renewable fuel sources. Unfortunately the South is still struggling with our addiction to cheap coal. In states like Georgia, we’re actually seeing a bold step in quite the opposite direction as Power4Georgians, a consortium of electric municipal cooperatives (EMCs), pursues the construction of a new 800 MW coal facility in Washington County, Georgia with possibly even greater aspirations to dig our way into a climate hole.

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