Aging Coal Plants Still a Fixture in U.S. South

Posted on 16 December 2009 by editor

By Jonathan Springston

ATLANTA, Georgia, U.S. (IPS/TerraViva) As governments negotiate future greenhouse gas emissions in Copenhagen, a recent report from Environment America has highlighted the problem of the nation’s older coal-fired power plants, which generated nearly three-quarters of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions from power plants in 2007.

Altogether, U.S. power plants dumped 2.56 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the air in 2007.

Of the nation’s 25 dirtiest power plants, 10 are in the South – and all but one of those was built before 1980. The nation’s dirtiest power plant, the Southern Co.’s Plant Scherer in South Georgia, emitted more than 27.2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2007.

Lee Martin, a Macon, Georgia resident and an active member of Georgians for Smart Energy, knows firsthand the effects of Plant Scherer.

“It emits the most carbon dioxide of any plant in the world,” he told IPS. “It emits 1,700 pounds of mercury every year.”

Martin said the plant affects portions of Houston, Bibb, and Monroe Counties, with the latter two in non-attainment, which means the air quality does not meet certain Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards.

“It’s a restrictive designation,” he said. “What it really means is the air is unhealthy for people to breathe.”

Martin noted pollution from Scherer has led to fish advisories in nearby lakes and rivers, an increase in asthma cases, and an overall decline in population.

Even with the addition of scrubbers to Scherer, Martin feels “at the very minimum it will bring them up to code”.

“What are you going to do with the pollutants that the scrubbers catch?” he asked. “You can’t just burn away material. Matter turns into something.”

Despite the harmful effects, Martin said local politicians are continuing to protect Scherer.

The coal industry has been actively fighting the transition to clean energy. The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, a coal industry lobby group, spent nearly 40 million dollars in 2008 alone – more than 100,000 a day – on lobbyists and advertising, according to reports to the Internal Revenue Service this month.

But there is trouble on the horizon for coal. The EPA announced last week that carbon dioxide and other global warming pollutants are harmful to the public health and can be regulated under the Clean Air Act.

“The stage is now set for the EPA to hold the biggest global warming polluters accountable,” Emily Figdor, director of Environment America’s Federal Global Warming Program, said in a Dec. 7 statement.

“The [U.S.] Senate also must act to set overall pollution-reduction goals and to accelerate the move to clean energy, but it’s up to EPA to crack down on pollution from cars and mega industrial polluters, like coal-fired power plants,” she added.

Progress Energy Carolinas announced Dec. 1 that it will close all of its remaining North Carolina coal-fired plants that do not have scrubbers by the end of 2017.

The company will close 11 coal-fired plants in four locations – 30 percent of all the company’s coal-fired plants in the state.

“Progress Energy sees the writing on the wall,” Elizabeth Ouzts, director of Environment North Carolina, told IPS. “Coal is not only dirty but it’s going to get more expensive.”

Company officials told The Raleigh News & Observer on Dec. 2 that the cost of constructing natural gas replacement plants would be about 1.5 billion dollars whereas the cost of installing scrubbers would exceed 2.0 billion dollars.

“Natural gas is cleaner than coal [but] we would like to see a more aggressive pursuit of clean energy like solar and wind,” Ouzts said.

Since 2004, 95 new coal-fired plants have been defeated in the United States, according to the Sierra Club. But while some states are backing away from coal, Georgia is sticking with it.

Power4Georgians, a coalition of 10 regional EMCs, estimates the proposed Plant Washington in east-central rural Georgia will cost 2.1 billion dollars while providing 1,600 jobs during the four-year construction project.

After completion, Power4Georgians estimates the plant will create 120 to 130 permanent jobs and generate 7.0 million dollars annually in direct wages and benefits.

However, an independent assessment provided by the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies, a Chattanooga, Tennessee-based non-profit research group, argues taxpayers may not reap the potential financial and employment perks.

The report says the county faces significant unknown cost risks related to plant construction, leading to the possibility of higher taxes.

Local activists express disappointment when considering how the United States is approaching its energy future.

“When you look at the chart, we are headed in the exact wrong direction,” Jennette Gayer, an advocate with Environment Georgia, told IPS. “We have potentially three coal plants waiting in the wings. I think it’s scary when the rest of the country is retooling for alternative energy.”

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