As carbon regs loom, coal feels weight of its crown

CARTERSVILLE, Ga. -- If coal is king, Plant Bowen is its castle.

Georgia Power Co.'s Plant Bowen sprawls across 2,000 acres along the Etowah River about 50 miles northwest of Atlanta. The leviathan is crowned by white plumes from four cooling towers and two scrubber stacks. It is all overseen by two smokestacks, which at 1,000 feet are about as tall as the Eiffel Tower.

Plant Bowen consumes 9 million tons of coal a year -- enough to power 800,000 homes. Its coal is hauled here by rail from Central Appalachia and stored in mountainous heaps. The coal is hauled into the plant, crushed into powder, then blown into a boiler. Heat turns water into steam that spins the turbines that drive generators.

With an output of 3,160 megawatts, Bowen is the nation's third-largest coal-fired power generator. It also generates 22 million tons of carbon dioxide a year, making it the country's second-largest coal-fired source of CO2. And last year, the plant emitted nearly 150,000 tons of acid rain-forming sulfur dioxide and nearly 25,000 tons of smog-forming nitrogen oxides, although those pollutants are expected to be lower this year due to new controls.

Bowen's owner, Southern Co., depends heavily on coal, the source of nearly 70 percent of its power generation. And with pending climate change legislation and revamped power plant regulations looming, Bowen and the rest of the Atlanta-based company's massive coal plants could soon be forced to undergo some expansive and costly alterations.

"They've got a bunch of big, old coal plants," said Eric Schaeffer, former U.S. EPA air enforcement chief and now the head of the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project. "I think they're going to have to basically eventually close down a couple of those plants and roll in some new sources of power."

Southern Co. owns the top three carbon-emitting plants in the country -- the others being Plant Scherer, which is also in Georgia, and the James H. Miller Jr. Plant in Alabama, according to EPA data compiled by Schaeffer's group. To the utility's credit, Schaeffer said, its plants emit less CO2 per megawatt than many smaller plants.

For their part, Southern officials make no apologies for the prolific use of inexpensive and abundant coal. Their goal in the national debate over curbing U.S. carbon emissions is to ensure there is plenty of time to get "clean coal" technologies in place at coal-burning power plants.

"Clearly, we have a lot of coal on the ground. And that's very important to us," said Chris Hobson, Southern's senior vice president for research and environmental affairs. "That's really not a ... geographical decision, but it's just a result of the way our company evolved."


Some see power generation evolving away from coal. Proposals for new coal-fired power plants have fared poorly in recent years due in part to growing public concerns about climate change and utilities' concerns about whether mandatory carbon curbs were lurking around the corner.

In July, the Sierra Club celebrated the defeat of 100 planned coal plants since 2001. "At the beginning of the coal rush in 2001, it seemed inevitable that as many as 150 new proposed coal plants would get built," said Bruce Nilles, director of the group's "Beyond Coal" campaign (Greenwire, July 9).

"Since then we've seen an incredible change in the way people, businesses and governments ... are thinking about energy, figuring out how to generate and use it more cleanly and efficiently," Nilles said. "Coal is no longer a smart or cost-effective option."

But Southern Co. officials don't see the United States lessening its dependence on coal anytime soon.

"Those assumptions that we make are that coal is still a necessary fuel choice to drive the economy of the country and the region," Hobson said. "And so we start with the premise that -- despite the fact that there is a lot of attention on coal, and there are a lot of people in some very powerful positions that might like to see coal go away as a fuel source -- at least for the foreseeable future, coal is going to be part of the energy mix."

Lobbying muscle

Southern Co. is doing what it can to make sure coal does not go away.

Among the utilities lobbying Congress this year, Southern has spent the most -- $2.7 million in the second quarter and $6.4 million overall (Greenwire, July 29).

"One of the things that's said about Southern Company that I really take as a compliment is that we may work very hard to shape regulations, shape legislation to the benefit of our customers, we work very hard at that and we're very visible at that," Hobson said.

Environmentalists have another view of Southern Co.'s work on Capitol Hill.

"They're very adept at trying to resist environmental protection regulation and policy," said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

"Once the regulations get in place, I'm not saying that they aren't complying," Smith said, "but they tend to fight environmental regulations very, very aggressively and tend to be one of the lead agents in resisting sound environmental policies that protect human health and the environment."

Smith said the company tends to focus on its bottom line and has hired very aggressive lobbyists to promote its goals. He cited the company's past employment of Haley Barbour -- a well-known Washington lobbyist and the former chairman of the Republican National Committee -- to help it craft a strategy to deal with a federal crackdown on plants that make significant upgrades without installing new pollution controls. Barbour is now the Republican governor of Mississippi.

Southern Co. officials insist they are well on their way to being environmental leaders.

At Bowen, for example, the company has nearly completed the $1.26 billion installation of "scrubbers" that will remove more than 95 percent of acid rain-forming sulfur dioxide from the plant's emissions.

The company is also touting its involvement in several projects that will test carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies. It is managing the Energy Department's CCS testing center in Alabama, hosting a DOE sequestration demonstration project in Mississippi, and planning a CCS project at Plant Barry in Alabama.

Southern Co. is also converting a Georgia coal plant to burn up to 96 megawatts of biomass and is considering converting an additional five units to burn plant matter.

"We've known that some form of the legislation is coming, and we're aggressively working to diversify that fuel portfolio so that we have all these options available," Southern spokeswoman Valerie Hendrickson said.

'Targets and timelines'

With coal making up 68 percent of its fuel mix, Southern Co.'s major concern is that Congress allows enough time to develop CCS technologies.

"We think you have to be careful not to set targets and timelines that are unrealistic according to the technologies that are available to us," Hobson said.

It is difficult to say exactly what would happen to Plant Bowen under climate regulations, Hendrickson said.

Retrofitting the plant with CCS technologies could cost about $5 billion, Hendrickson said. And depending on the type of technologies used to capture CO2, the process could consume as much as 40 percent of the plant's net electricity output.

In the meantime, Southern Co. representatives say they are working with others in the industry to find ways to lower the overall costs of CCS technologies while diversifying their fuel mixes.

But no matter what happens, Hendrickson warned, "You can't just shut down a plant."

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