Georgia Power continues retreat from coal

In 2011, water vapor from Georgia Power's Plant Bowen's cooling towers and scrubber stacks as seen from the top of Kennesaw Mountain, about 30 miles away. In 2021, Georgia Power said it plans to close two coal-burning units at Plant Bowen by the end of 2028, but it will add more environmental controls at two other coal units, allowing continued operation. Bob Andres bandres@ajc.com

Credit: bandres@ajc.com

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In 2011, water vapor from Georgia Power's Plant Bowen's cooling towers and scrubber stacks as seen from the top of Kennesaw Mountain, about 30 miles away. In 2021, Georgia Power said it plans to close two coal-burning units at Plant Bowen by the end of 2028, but it will add more environmental controls at two other coal units, allowing continued operation. Bob Andres bandres@ajc.com

Credit: bandres@ajc.com

Moves to cheaper alternatives

A decade ago, Georgia Power’s leaders resisted sharply shifting away from coal, its primary fuel for generating electricity, warning it could lead to increased prices and steep job losses.

Pushed by economic realities and environmental worries, the company eventually did what it warned against. Coal plants supplied 75% of Georgia Power’s energy generation 20 years ago. By last year, it was down to 15%.

The Atlanta-based company plans to cut that even more.

It intends to shut five of its nine remaining coal-burning units at three plants no later than the end of 2028, according to a recent federal filing.

The upcoming moves away from coal may set off a domino effect. Leaders have to figure out what replacement generation might be needed, whether big transmission line changes are required and how the shifts might affect consumers’ monthly electric bills.

The company will lay out details of its plan by late January, when it gives state regulators its latest proposal for how to meet long-term electricity needs.

But some see clear upsides.

“We are encouraged,” said Neil Sardana, a local organizer for Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. In communities near power plants, “people’s air and water has been contaminated from the use of coal for decades.”

Shutting the units “gives a chance for these communities to start healing,” he said. It also cuts carbon dioxide emissions tied to climate change.

And with Georgia Power’s early announcement of the closings, the affected communities and employees can take steps to prepare for potential jobs losses at the plants, hopefully with Georgia Power’s help, Sardana said.

The transition from coal hasn’t been without its twists. Georgia Power this year actually increased the percentage of electricity it generated from coal plants. A company spokesman cited recent increases in natural gas prices that made coal look relatively more economical to use for now.

But the longer-term shift away from coal is expected to continue.

Dirty past

Over the years, Georgia Power and its parent, Southern Company, repeatedly fought federal moves to cut pollution from coal fired plants.

A decade ago, Southern CEO Tom Fanning warned about proposed federal environmental rules tied to coal-burning plants. Fanning said the limits “could drive utilities to replace coal with natural gas, with enormous social consequences,” including job cuts, lost business in rural communities and higher electricity prices.

In a national report around the same time, the Union of Concerned Scientists concluded that Georgia had the most uneconomic coal powered capacity in the country, as well as one of the dirtiest fleets.

Like many other U.S. utilities, Georgia Power eventually did shut and demolish a string of old, inefficient coal plants. They were costly to keep up and to retrofit to meet updated environmental regulations. And they became less competitive compared to natural gas units or solar energy. Meanwhile, pressure kept building to slash greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide.

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A worker with Solar Panel Solutions inspects solar panels in Bronwood, Ga. Solar energy accounts for only a small portion of Georgia’s electric power. But the sun is generating a growing segment of the state’s energy picture. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

A worker with Solar Panel Solutions inspects solar panels in Bronwood, Ga. Solar energy accounts for only a small portion of Georgia’s electric power. But the sun is generating a growing segment of the state’s energy picture. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

caption arrowCaption
A worker with Solar Panel Solutions inspects solar panels in Bronwood, Ga. Solar energy accounts for only a small portion of Georgia’s electric power. But the sun is generating a growing segment of the state’s energy picture. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Now, Southern has set a goal to reach net zero emissions of carbon and other greenhouse gases by 2050. The White House is pushing electricity providers to be 100% carbon free years sooner.

Georgia Power already has reduced its carbon emissions by more than 60 percent, according to company spokesman John Kraft.

And since the utility filed its last energy plan three years ago, “the long-term economic viability” of the company’s coal units has been diminished by lower natural gas prices, reduced projections for growth in energy use, environmental regulations, continued addition of renewable energy and other factors, Kraft wrote in an email to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Fanning, the CEO who had previously pushed against quick coal plant closings, detailed for investment analysts in November where the company’s electricity will come from decades in the future. He didn’t mention coal. Instead, he predicted renewables might provide half the company’s needs, with most of the rest covered by nuclear energy and natural gas fired plants.

Cleaner future

For many people in the electricity sector, the current debate isn’t so much about whether to drop coal.

“What do we replace the coal with? That is the big question,” said Marilyn Brown, a Georgia Tech professor of sustainable systems who previously served on the board of the Tennessee Valley Authority, the nation’s largest public power provider.

Natural gas burning plants aren’t tied to the variabilities of sunlight or wind. But unlike renewables such as solar and wind energy, natural gas plants have direct emissions tied to climate change, though they give off relatively less carbon dioxide than do similarly sized coal plants.

Georgia, which has no active coal mines or proven natural gas reserves, has plenty of sunshine compared to much of the nation, Brown said. And compared to coal plants, she said solar facilities would spread energy jobs and investments more equally across the state.


Coal-burning units that Georgia Power has closed at power plants since 2013:

Two units at Plant Branch in Putnam County.

Five units at Plant Yates in Coweta County. Two other coal units converted to handle natural gas.

Three units at Plant Kraft in Chatham County.

One unit at Plant Mitchell near Albany.

Four units at Plant Hammond near Rome.

One unit at Plant McIntosh near Rincon.

Still to come:

Georgia Power has proposed halting coal combustion by the end of 2028 at a unit at Plant Scherer north of Macon, two units at Plant Bowen near Cartersville and two units at Plant Wansley near Carrollton. Georgia Power plans to add new environmental controls to four other existing coal units, two at Bowen and two at Scherer.

Source: Georgia Power

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