Old power gives way to new power in south Georgia

Albany, a southwest Georgia city of about 80,000, is in a state of transition these days — from old power to new power.

Thursday, Georgia Power broke ground on a solar power farm near Albany that will deliver 31 megawatts of power — enough to supply roughly 5,000 homes, at least when the sun is shining.

Meanwhile, the Atlanta utility shut down part of a 52-year-old coal- and oil-fired plant near Albany last year, and plans to shut down the rest of it if state regulators approve its decommissioning.

Albany’s old and new power generators are just the latest example of the turnover that has been occurring at utility companies across the nation. They are moving away from coal-fired plants to a mix of other energy sources to meet tougher federal clean air rules.

In Georgia Power’s case, it has mainly been shifting from coal to plants that use cheaper, cleaner-burning natural gas. It is also expanding its Vogtle nuclear plant near Augusta and toying with the idea of building another nuclear plant south of Columbus.

But the utility also has been boosting its use of renewable wind and solar power. Earlier this year, Georgia Power told state regulators it plans to get an additional 525 megawatts of power through solar, wind and other renewable energy sources by 2019.

In Albany, up to 200 people are expected to help build the new $75 million solar facility over the next year on approximately 150 acres at the Navy’s Marine Corp. Logistics Base, which repairs ground combat vehicles.

But after that, its 138,000 solar panels will be remotely monitored and require only periodic maintenance and tweaking by a mobile crew, according to Georgia Power.

It’s the fifth such solar power plant Georgia Power has installed on military bases and posts around the state, including the U.S. Army’s Fort Benning near Columbus and the Navy’s Kings Bay submarine base in St. Mary.

“The projects we are developing on our state’s military bases are great examples of renewable energy growth being driven by collaboration and innovative partnerships,” said Kenny Coleman, senior vice president of marketing for Georgia Power.

Under the arrangement, Georgia Power builds and owns the solar farms and feeds the power into its grid, while the military units provide the land and get access to backup power supplies that they can use in an emergency.

“As we begin to tighten our focus on energy resiliency, these projects will be the foundation of energy security on our bases,” said Dennis V. McGinn, assistant secretary of the Navy for Energy, Installations & Environment.

Altogether, the five military solar farms are expected to produce 166 megawatts of power.

This is not the first time Georgia Power has turned to Albany with plans to use a renewable energy source to replace electricity from old-technology power plants.

In 2008, the utility announced plans to convert Plant Mitchell’s 155 megawatt unit coal-burning units to wood waste products from the region, a big producer of pine timber and pulp paper.

But in 2014, Georgia Power announced that it was abandoning its plans for the plant, about 10 miles south of town.

The Great Recession and growing efficiency of lights and appliances had driven down demand for electricity, and a steep decline in natural gas prices made the planned switch to biomass nonviable.

Georgia Power shut down Unit 3, the coal-fired unit it planned to convert, last year. It has asked state regulators to approve plans to decommission that unit as well as the plant’s remaining combustion turbines, which are only used occasionally.

The 25 employees who worked there at its peak have mostly scattered to jobs at Georgia Power’s other facilities, a company spokesman said.

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