Increasing federal regulation of clean air standards for coal-fired electric generation plants has caused electric utilities in South Carolina to close some plants and sideline others. The Grainger plant, pictured, in Horry County is kept on standby for peak demand periods, but otherwise is idle. Its future is under review by owner Santee Cooper. (Photo/Jim Huff)
Published Aug. 10, 2012
South Carolina is on the cusp of dramatic change in the way electric power is generated here, and the electric utility companies currently are acting without long-term policy guidance from state government.
Utilities statewide plan to retire coal-fired electricity generating plants on a large scale, reducing by at least one-quarter the number of the generators that emit sulfur, nitrogen oxide, mercury, carbon dioxide and other noxious chemicals blamed for aggravating asthma and other respiratory illnesses.
The closures take on increased urgency in light of a new analysis from the Natural Resources Defense Council that shows South Carolina ranked No. 13 for most toxic air pollution emitted from coal-fired power plants.
Coal- and oil-fired power plants still contribute around 44% of all the toxic air pollution reported to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory, according to data from the defense council.
The Upstate and the Midlands have tottered on the brink of non-attainment of EPA goals for clean air. Slipping into non-attainment could bring harsh limits on new industrial development.
No S.C. clean energy standards
South Carolina currently has no policy on clean energy standards. Such a bill was introduced in the last session by Sens. John Matthews and Phil Leventis, but it died in a Senate subcommittee at the end of the General Assembly’s session in June.
So far, planned retirements and closures of coal-fired plants include:
- Six units at three power stations owned by South Carolina Electric & Gas.
- The H.B. Robinson coal-fired generator at Hartsville, owned by Duke Energy’s Progress Energy subsidiary.
- Three coal-fired units of the W.S. Lee Station in Anderson County operated by Duke Energy.
- A 50-year-old coal-fired generating unit at the Savannah River Site operated by the Department of Energy.
Meanwhile, Santee Cooper idled its Dolphus M. Grainger coal-fired generating plant in Horry County, keeping it on standby in case the utility needs backup generating capacity. The Grainger plant and the aging Jefferies plant in Berkeley County are under review to determine whether the two units can be brought into compliance with EPA regulations in a cost-effective manner.
In 2010, 38 electric generators in South Carolina power plants of at least 1 megawatt capacity reported using coal as their primary fuel source, according to the South Carolina Energy Office.
The tide has been running against coal-fired electricity generation in South Carolina.
In August 2009, Santee Cooper suspended plans to build a 600-megawatt coal-fired power plant on the Great Pee Dee River in Florence County. The plans met strong public opposition. Santee Cooper CEO Lonnie Carter said a decrease in electricity demand and proposed environmental legislation threatened to drive up operating costs of coal-fired plants.
Alternatives to coal
One reason the coal-fired plants can be shut down is the growing capacity of cleaner, natural gas-fired generators and nuclear reactors under construction.
SCE&G is building 2,200 megawatts of new nuclear generating capacity at Jenkinsville in Fairfield County. Currently, Santee Cooper, the state-owned electric utility, owns 45% of those two new nuclear units.
Nuclear power plants emit no noxious chemicals, and the two new reactors at Jenkinsville will dramatically reduce SCE&G’s emissions into the atmosphere.
Steve Byrne, COO for Cayce-based SCANA, parent of SCE&G, said last week that while his company may need additional generating capacity a decade from now, he does not currently envision a scenario in which SCE&G would build new coal plants.
Duke Energy estimates it will retire the W.S. Lee Steam Station’s coal-fired operations by 2015. The utility is studying whether to convert the boilers to natural gas and will announce the decision later this year.
But no state is an island when it comes to clean air, and national and international trends will continue to impact South Carolina’s air quality.
The amount of chemicals pouring from coal-fired plants worldwide is huge. In 2004, the use of coal resulted emissions of 3.9 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide in the United States alone, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. China belches the most pollutants into the Earth’s atmosphere, and is building new coal plants at a rapid pace.
But in the U.S., the shift toward natural gas and away from coal has been dramatic. The annual share of fossil-fired electric power generation from coal has plummeted to about 55% of the total in 2010, from almost 80% in the late 1980s, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, or EIA. In the same period, the annual share for natural gas rose to about 45% from less than 15%.
Rising shale natural gas output has exceeded natural gas demand growth and depressed natural gas prices, while coal prices have risen, according to the EIA. Those trends began in 2009 to change the cost-benefit impact of using coal vs. natural gas in the eastern United States, the EIA reported.
Between 2000 and 2012, natural gas generating capacity grew by 96%, while coal-fired capacity growth slumped, and petroleum-fired capacity declined by 12%.
According to the EIA, current trends in electric power generation suggest many coal-fired generators may be retired. In its annual energy outlook, the EIA expects 49 gigawatts of coal-fired capacity to be closed by 2020, or about one-sixth of existing coal capacity in the U.S. and less than 5% of total electricity generation nationwide.
The environmental impact of such a change would be considerable, since today’s natural-gas plants give off only about half the carbon dioxide as a similar sized coal plant.
Studies have estimated that particle pollution from more than 400 coal-fired power plants kill 13,000 people a year, and most coal-fired plants are concentrated in the Midwest and Southeast.
Air pollution is not the only environmental impact from burning coal on a large scale. The Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill, N.C., said coal-fired power plants are among South Carolina’s biggest water users, in addition to the safety, land and water problems associated with coal ash waste.
Utilities are not abandoning coal altogether in the Southeast. For example, Duke Energy has a new coal unit under construction, the 825-megawatt Unit 6 at Cliffside Steam Station. Located just across the state line, on the Cleveland/Rutherford County line in North Carolina, Duke Energy’s Cliffside Station retired four coal units last year. But it continues to operate one existing unit, and plans to bring the new coal-fired unit online this year.
Taken together, the trends away from burning coal in South Carolina and toward natural gas and nuclear generation of electric power could reduce the threat to the region’s clean air status.
James T. Hammond is editor of the Columbia Regional Business Report. Reach him at 803-401-1094, ext. 201.