Squeezed by ever tightening air pollution rules, Midlands utility SCE&G plans to close two coal-burning power plants and modify a third electricity generating station after decades of using coal to make energy.
The company will shutter the McMeekin power station on Lake Murray and the Canadys plant near Walterboro rather than pay the multi-million dollar cost of upgrading 1950s-era facilities with the latest pollution control technology. In addition, the company will shut down the only coal-fired unit at its Urquhart power plant, an Aiken County facility that also uses natural gas.
SCE&G would not say whether its decision would affect power bills for customers. But the utilitys announcement Wednesday marks the boldest step by a power company in South Carolina to reduce its reliance on coal, a rock-like substance used heavily since the Industrial Revolution to provide heat and electricity.
Coal-fired power plants are today blamed for contaminating fish across the South, while also releasing pollutants that contribute to smog and global warming. Fish in most of the rivers from Columbia to the coast are tainted by mercury, a poisonous metal released into the air by industrial and power plants. It eventually settles into waterways.
Environmental concerns and tighter federal restrictions on mercury and smog pollution are forcing utilities across the country to decide whether to close coal-burning plants or convert them to cleaner energy sources, such as natural gas. Looming mercury rules are a particular concern to power companies, including those that operate South Carolinas 12 commercial coal-fired stations.
Some companies are looking to upgrade newer plants, but shut down older ones that would be costly to retrofit. In SCE&Gs case, it has installed some $600 million worth of equipment since 2008 at its largest coal plants to control sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and mercury.
Other major utilities that operate in South Carolina, including Duke Energy and state-owned Santee Cooper, have said they are moving to close some coal plants. Duke Energy plans changes at its only S.C. coal plant, in Anderson County, while state-owned Santee Cooper is considering permanently closing power stations in Horry and Berkeley counties. Santee Coopers Grainger station in Conway is temporarily shuttered now.
But no utility has made such a sweeping announcement that affects so many plants in South Carolina. The McMeekin and Canadys power plants being closed by SCE&G contain five coal-fired units, about half the total number of such units at all of the companys six generating plants that use coal. Shut downs will begin as early as the end of this year for some plants and continue through 2018 for others.
In SCE&Gs case, the plan is to increase the companys reliance on nuclear power and natural gas, as it ramps down the use of coal to make electricity over the next seven years.
The utility is building two new nuclear plants in Fairfield County to complement the existing atomic energy plant at the site. The companys reliance on coal will drop from a capacity of about 44 percent to about 30 percent when the coal-fired units are shut down in the next seven years, a spokesman for SCE&G said.
Since announcing our new nuclear project in 2008, weve said that the addition of the two new nuclear units would give us flexibility to look at reducing our reliance on coal and allow us to achieve better fuel diversity in our electric generation portfolio, said Kevin Marsh, chairman and chief executive at SCE&Gs parent company, SCANA Corp. Marshs statement said the changes will help us meet the increasingly stringent environmental regulations facing our industry and should position SCE&G to be a leader in non-emitting generation well into the future.
About 20 jobs will be affected by the changes, but the company says it will work to find the employees other positions at SCE&G. The company, headquartered in Cayce, supplies electricity to 668,000 customers in central and eastern and coastal South Carolina. The company is a subsidiary of SCANA, a Fortune 500 company, also headquartered in Cayce.
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said that while hes confident in SCE&Gs plan, he also is generally concerned about abandoning coal without a comprehensive national energy policy.
We are just haphazardly closing coal plants, Graham said during a stop in Columbia. We dont have a vision. How do you replace a coal plant? It would be crazy not to use coal just make it (burn) cleaner. We have 250 years of coal supplies.
SCE&Gs announcement Wednesday means that by 2019, the company would have only three remaining power plants fueled entirely by coal. Those are the companys Wateree station in lower Richland County, its Williams station outside Charleston and its Cope station near Orangeburg.
While the remaining plants are larger and newer than the ones being closed or modified, SCE&Gs decision is nonetheless significant, environmentalists said. About one-third of all the megawatts produced by existing company coal plants will now shift to other forms of energy, primarily nuclear. Thats enough power to supply about 580,000 homes, SCE&G said.
This is huge, said Hamilton Davis, who tracks energy issues for the S.C. Coastal Conservation League. It takes us in the right direction of shutting these plants down, taking them off line and beginning to address the environmental and health consequences the state has from its dependency on coal.
Blan Holman, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said SCE&Gs decision to phase out its oldest, most polluting plants will ultimately help ratepayers and the environment. He and other environmentalists are pushing for companies to use more solar and wind power.
We hope that SCE&G will continue on a path toward modernizing its generating fleet by embracing clean, low-cost energy resources like energy efficiency and renewable energy that reduce risk for the utility and its customers, Holman said.
Jeff Wilkinson contributed to this story.