Progress Energy plans to mothball 11 coal-burning power plants in the state, a move that signals the beginning of the end of the era of cheap coal that has defined the state's electricity production for decades.
The Raleigh electric utility is moving to shutter older coal-burning plants because it's becoming too expensive to modify the older plants to comply with ever-tougher environmental regulations. The aging plants, including one in Chatham County, produce 12.5 percent of the power company's electricity but lack pollution-trapping "scrubber" technology.
Progress officials anticipate a slew of new federal restrictions on air pollution that crosses state lines, on mercury emissions and on waste pits that store coal ash.
For the power company it came down to simple math. The cost of replacing those plants with new ones mostly fueled by natural gas would be about $1.5 billion. The cost of retrofitting all 11 of the old coal-burning plants to cut emissions is at least $2 billion and rising.
"We would have had to put some kind of environmental retrofits on all these plants eventually," said Lloyd Yates, chief executive of Progress Energy's operations in the Carolinas.
Additionally, Congress is debating proposals that would require cutting greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80 percent, with penalties for noncompliance. Currently there is no technology commercially available that can trap greenhouse gas emissions.
That creates enormous challenges for North Carolina, a state in which more than half the electricity is generated from coal. An abundant domestic source of energy, coal is also a major source of global warming.
The United States has more than 200 years of available coal reserves, but in recent years dozens of power companies have scrapped plans to build coal-fired power plants because of concern about global warming, air pollution and mining practices that strip mountain tops.
Progress, which had previously vowed not to build another coal-burning power plant, is now going further and dismantling existing ones. The request must still be approved by the N.C. Utilities Commission.
Progress wants to deactivate about 1,500 megawatts of coal plants built between 1949 and 1972. That would leave the company with about 3,600 megawatts of coal-burning plants in operation in Person and Buncombe counties.
Progress expects to shut down the older units by 2017. It will replace some of the coal plants with plants powered by natural gas, a cleaner-burning fossil fuel that emits less than half the greenhouse gases produced by coal. Natural gas cuts other pollutants, too, including mercury as well as ozone-forming emissions.
"It's good news for the environment of North Carolina and the world," said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.
The plants being closed are on four sites across the state: the W.H. Weatherspoon plant near Lumberton, the Cape Fear Plant in Moncure in Chatham County, the L.V. Sutton plant near Wilmington and the H.F. Lee plant near Goldsboro.
The 260 employees who work at the plants would dwindle to 75 to 100 workers, Yates said. The company hopes to find positions at new natural gas plants or other facilities for the workers who are still with the company in eight years, when the last of the old coal plants is shut down.
Meanwhile, Charlotte-based Duke Energy is building what is now believed to be the last coal-burning power plant in the state: the 800-megawatt Cliffside facility west of Charlotte. Duke is also shutting down aging coal-burning plants, but the replacement power will come from coal at Cliffside, not from natural gas.
Duke committed to coal at a time that natural gas costs were undergoing wild price swings and setting records. Since then, natural gas prices have fallen dramatically as energy developers have harnessed advanced technologies that can tap more gas reserves and increase global supply.
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