Southern Co. CEO says U.S. needs more coal-fired power plants

By WALTER C. JONES Morris News Service ATLANTA -- The chief executive officer of the country's largest utility said Wednesday the United States doesn't have enough pipelines to switch from coal to natural gas as quickly as the Obama administration is demanding. Tom Fanning, CEO of The Southern Company, said in addition to coal-fired power plants, the country also needs more nuclear plants. Southern, parent of Georgia Power, Alabama Power and others, is the nation's largest operator of coal-fired plants for the generation of electricity. It is also in the midst of building two commercial reactors near Augusta, the first in the United States in 30 years.
"We don't have the gas infrastructure available today in the form of interstate pipelines to be able to move the gas today from where we are finding it now to where it needs to be," he said. The sites of new discoveries of natural gas in shale in the Northeast are a long way from the major pipelines that originate in the Southwest. Building new ones could be slow, he said, noting that Georgia Power waited four years for a short spur to reach one of its plants near Atlanta in order to convert from coal to natural gas. That conversion is part of Southern's plan to diversify its energy usage. Four years ago, coal produced 70 percent of its electricity, and the amount has dropped to 50 percent today with natural gas making up the difference. By the end of the decade, coal and gas will each produce 40 percent with nuclear supplying 20 percent, he predicted. "We're already making that transition," he said. "We don't need a regulatory stick to do it." The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is preparing to institute new rules that impose stiff penalties on coal-fired power plants. Georgia has joined other states in a court battle to try to stop them. The EPA and other environmental groups have pushed for the switch to natural gas because it emits less carbon when it's burned than coal. However, Fanning pointed out that Southern has invested $2.5 billion to develop cleaner-burning coal plants. "If we are going to let EPA put in a series of regulations they are proposing today... then we risk no longer having the electric generation in place that drives the economy and sustains our ability to create jobs," he said. While he blasted President Barack Obama's EPA, he offered praise on the construction of reactors, such as his decision to offer loan guarantees to Southern that were part of the previous administration's energy policy. "With respect to nuclear policy as part of energy policy in America, I would give great credit to the Obama administration," Fanning said.


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