Between the climate talks about to start in Paris and the EPA hearing on aspects of the Clean Power Plan in Atlanta this week, there’s been a lot of talk about climate and carbon. But whether you think limiting carbon emissions is important or not, there are plenty of other reasons to phase out Georgia Power’s Plant Hammond, a medium-sized coal plant in the northwest corner of the state.
The evidence is stacking up for shutting Plant Hammond down. First, on November 4, the Georgia Water Coalition named Plant Hammond one of the 2015 Dirty Dozen threats to Georgia waterways. Then, a new report from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis showed that the plant is both running less and costing more, while Georgia Power has many alternatives that are both cleaner and cheaper. And a front-page investigation by the Atlanta Journal Constitution found that coal ash, at Plant Hammond and elsewhere, continues to pose a toxic threat to neighboring areas.
Hammond, which first went online in the 1950s, uses outdated “once through” technology to cool the plant. According to the Dirty Dozen report, the plant needs about 590 million gallons per day of water, roughly equivalent to what the city of Atlanta uses each day. To get it, the cooling system sucks in water as well as fish and their eggs in from the Coosa river – 60,000 fish per year. It pours most of that back into the river, but it’s hotter than before, creating oxygen-poor environments that stress fish and other wildlife.
Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division promised to take up the permit covering Plant Hammond’s hot water discharge this year, though the underfunded, understaffed agency is coming down to the wire on making good on its promise. Water advocates are calling for a permit that drastically cuts the volume and temperature of the plant’s discharge to the Coosa. Technology is readily available to do so, although investing in such technology rather than simply phasing out the plant would be throwing good money after bad.
Plant Hammond is a financial sinkhole
In a new report commissioned by Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE), researchers looked at Plant Hammond’s performance and cost, and compared them with other sources of power. It turns out that Plant Hammond closely resembles other coal plants Georgia Power is already retiring, and is out-shined by alternative power sources that also have lower carbon footprints. From the report:
The cost of generating power at Plant Hammond already is very high compared to the cost of purchasing power from other plants. More important, due to dramatic declines in the cost of adding new solar and wind capacity, power generated by Plant Hammond already is much more expensive than buying power from utility-scale solar and wind projects through long-term (15- to 25-year) power purchase agreements. And the cost of generating power at Plant Hammond is likely to rise even higher in coming years as a result of costly upgrades to add cooling towers and effluent treatment controls
The three charts below show these comparisons. First, we see that Plant Hammond’s operation has become more expensive over time, while the cost of power available on the market (mostly from natural gas plants) has declined.
For reference, the report compares Plant Hammond with other coal plants Georgia Power is already retiring. Plant Hammond is similar in age, power production, and cost (shown below) to three other coal-fired plants Georgia Power agreed to retire by spring of 2016: Plant Kraft, part of Plant Yates, and Plant Branch.
A November exposé by Willoughby Mariano of the Atlanta Journal Constitution delved into the threat of coal ash – the residue from burning coal – stored in 44 giant, watery pits along Georgia’s rivers wherever coal-fired power plants are located. Coal ash is a toxic soup containing mercury, arsenic, selenium, and even some radioactive material, materials that can cause a rash of human ailments ranging from cancer to developmental disabilities.
Georgia’s ash pits can hold a volume equivalent to 64 times the Empire State Building. Worse, the earthen dams holding the contents of the pits back from the river are, according to the AJC investigation, falling through the cracks of public oversight. To quote the article, Mariano found:
- Georgia’s ponds were built in especially precarious locations. Four were built on terrain vulnerable to sinkholes, which have opened up beneath them and sent slurry into nearby rivers.
- Most are prone to leaks, yet none of the soil or groundwater around active ponds have been monitored by regulators for signs of contamination. Only two are lined with materials to keep them from contaminating groundwater, federal records show.
- Only three of the dams that keep sludge from spilling are ever inspected, and budget cuts forced the state Environmental Protection Division (EPD) to reduce dam checks in 2010.
- Records show one quarter of Georgia’s coal ash dams fell short of federal standards in initial checks, some for poor conditions, others because Georgia Power did not give inspectors crucial safety information.
Thanks to new federal water protections, Georgia Power will no longer be allowed to use water to wash the ash out of its boilers and into storage ponds. Instead it will have to upgrade its ash handling to eliminate liquid discharge. This upgrade is another example of further unwarranted expenditures on this already foundering plant. Georgia Power ratepayers, and all who rely on clean water, would be better served if the utility closes the plant and concentrates on properly cleaning up the existing ash so that it cannot reach the groundwater.
When and how?
Closing a coal plant is a deliberate process, which in this case should begin as soon as possible. For past plant closures, the company has accommodated its workforce through attrition, early retirement, and re-assignment.
Every three years, Georgia Power submits its long-term plan, called an Integrated Resource Plan, to the state’s elected Public Service Commission (PSC). The PSC decides whether the plan sufficiently represents customers’ need for reasonable rates and reliable service through a series of public hearings. The next plan is due in January, 2016 with hearings to follow.
The 2016 Integrated Resource Plan would be a great opportunity to announce a phase-out of Plant Hammond.
It’s worth noting that as Georgia Power shifts away from coal, it is simultaneously becoming a leader in large-scale solar, with nearly a gigawatt of sun power installed by the end of 2016. The existing transmission lines serving the Hammond site could make it an ideal location for a solar farm, which could offer sustained economic vitality in the region.