Plant Yates no longer to burn coal, switch to natural gas in 2015
By SARAH FAY CAMPBELL
Plant Yates' days as a coal burning power plant are numbered.
Georgia Power has announced that units one through five at Yates, located on the Chattahoochee River in west Coweta County, will cease operation by April 16, 2015 — if the company's plan is approved by the Georgia Public Service Commission.
Yates is one of several plants that Georgia Power plans to partially or totally shut down under its Integrated Resource Plan, which will be filed with the PSC on Jan. 31.
Georgia Power made the decision to retire some of its oldest and dirtiest power plants because it is not worth it, economically, to keep operating them. The operating costs included adding the pollution controls that would be needed to comply with the federal Mercury and Air Toxics rule that will go into effect in 2015.
"We have to do what is in the best interest of our customers," said Mark Williams, Georgia Power spokesman. "We're committed to providing reliable and affordable electricity to our 3.4 million customers, and so we have to make decisions based on that commitment," he said.
Yates currently has a generating capacity of 1,303 megawatts. Units six and seven produce the majority of that power — 724 megawatts. Williams said units six and seven are expected to produce roughly the same amount of electricity once they begin operating with natural gas.
Plant Yates currently has 224 employees. Once the shutdown and conversion is complete, the staff level is expected to be 106. The reductions will be obtained through attrition and transfer to other company facilities, Williams said. No layoffs are anticipated.
The Yates units to be shut down are all more than 50 years old. Units one and two began operating in 1950. Unit three came online in 1952, unit four came online in 1957, and unit five began operation in 1958.
Units six and seven began operating in 1974.
As for what Georgia Power will do to replace the lost generation capacity from the retired plants, "that will all be outlined in the Integrated Resource Plan," said Williams. "We have sufficient generation to meet demand," he said.
Other published reports have stated that Georgia Power plans to replace some of the lost generation with power generated from expansion of the Vogtle nuclear plant in Burke County south of Augusta, and that the company has agreed to buy a small amount of solar from independent producers.
"We've got a dynamic generation mix that now includes nuclear, it includes 21st century coal, natural gas, renewables, and energy efficiency," Williams said. "We believe in having a diverse generation fuel portfolio."
Yates and the other plants affected — Plant Branch on Lake Sinclair in Putnam County, Plant McManus in Glynn County, and Plant Kraft in Chatham County, are some of Georgia Powers' oldest, dirtiest, and least efficient coal-burning plants.
With the exception of unit 1, none of the units at Plant Yates have any of the modern pollution controls that substantially cut emissions of sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, and mercury at other coal-fired power plants.
"We think this is a really good decision because Plant Yates, more than any other coal plant in the country, has the highest cost in health impacts," said Seth Gunning of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign. "The value of the electricity is far outweighed by the cost of the health impacts that it is causing for the community."
A report released in June by the Environmental Integrity Project stated that Plant Yates caused the third highest number of pollution-related premature deaths in the nation.
The report, "Net Loss: Comparing the Cost of Pollution vs. the Value of Electricity from 51 Coal-Fired Plants" found that, of all power plants in the entire country, Yates was the worst when it came to the value of the electricity produced versus the harm caused by its pollution.
Another report, "Toxic Power" put out last year by the National Resources Defense Council, listed Yates as the dirtiest power plant in the state, next to Branch. Georgia Power received approval from the PSC last year to shut down two of the units at Branch by December 2013. The new plan would shut down the remaining two units.
In 2010, according to the report, which uses U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data, Yates' total emission of all air toxics was 3,962,224 pounds, with 222 pounds of mercury.
Nearby Plant Wansley, which is much larger but has modern pollution controls, released just 968,670 pounds of toxics, including 68 pounds of mercury. Wansley has two coal fired units with a capacity of 1,730 MW (compared to 1,303 at Yates,) plus four natural gas units totaling 2,159 MW and one 50 MW oil burning unit.
"Plant Yates is estimated to cause between 100 and 200 premature deaths every year, and about 2,000 asthma attacks every year," Gunning said.
"Those are health ailments that the communities Newnan, and, really communities across Georgia, are going to be relived of," because of Georgia Power's decision, Gunning said.
Yates units six and seven were already required to have "scrubbers," which reduce sulfur dioxide pollution, and selective catalytic reduction units, which reduce nitrogen oxide emissions, under current state law. Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides combine to create smog, and also produce fine particle pollution. Scrubbers and SCRs together also reduce mercury emissions.
But Georgia Power asked to delay the pollution controls while it waited to see what the EPA would do on mercury pollution.
Georgia Power received permission from the PSC in 2010 to delay the upgrades at Yates and Branch. The original time frame for the Yates scrubbers was 2010 to 2014.
The new Mercury and Air Toxics Rule was a factor in the decision, said Williams, but it was not the only one.
Another factor is the current high supply and low cost of natural gas.
"The recent and forecast economic conditions and lower natural gas prices made it uneconomical to continue to operate those units," Williams said of all the units set for retirement.
But it does make sense to convert Yates' units six and seven, the largest and newest units, to natural gas.
One factor in that conversion is that Yates sits very close to the large Transco Natural Gas Pipeline. "They had to analyze its accessibility to natural gas and Yates was feasible," Williams said. When Georgia Power converted Plant McDonough in Smyrna to natural gas, they had to build a pipeline all the way from Union City to the plant, he said.
Georgia Power "looked at the whole range of scenarios" and did economic analysis "on the cost of different ways to" come into compliance with regulations "versus the cost of retiring the units and getting the generation elsewhere."
Once Georgia Power files its IRP, the PSC will look at its recommendations. "And then sometime in the summer they will take a vote on whether to accept" the recommendations, Williams said.
"We believe this is the right thing for our customers and we believe that they will agree with that," Williams said of the PSC.
Plant Yates has ponds and a landfill for the coal ash produced at the plant, as well as a landfill for the gypsum produced from the scrubber on unit one. The future of those has yet to be determined.
"We are still evaluating that and we will made a determination what needs to be done at all the sites," Williams said.
Georgia Power is one of Coweta's largest taxpayers. The tax value of the Plant Yates property will likely go down once the smaller units stop operating.
The valuation of the property is determined by the Georgia Department of Revenue, said Mike Marchese, director of the Coweta County Board of Assessors.
"It remains to be seen just how much of an impact this announcement will have," Marchese said. "Since we have a fairly broad taxpayer base that encompasses a great many industrial and commercial properties, our impact would presumably be less than that felt in a non-industrialized county where the utility company may provide the bulk of the taxes levied."