Miniature not because Georgia Power is a small provider of electricity, but because the company’s view of its own future may provide some insight into larger energy trends. We should not assume this to be true, an easy trap to fall into; instead, let’s look at it as one data point in a thesis that could be proven or disproven by more data points.
The reason we can glimpse into the future is because the Georgia Public Service Commission requires Georgia Power to submit what it calls an integrated resource plan. This IRP provides a look at the electricity landscape over the next 20 years. Georgia Power prepares a new IRP every three years, so its outlook can change based on changes in the marketplace.
Although we often refer to the two new reactors at Georgia’s Plant Vogtle as a Southern Co. project, the facility is jointly owned by Georgia Power (45.7%), Oglethorpe Power Corporation (30%), Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia (22.7%) and Dalton Utilities (1.6%). Georgia Power is a subsidiary of Southern Co. and, as you can see, owns the largest share of Plant Vogtle.
But nuclear later. First, coal (and oil):
As part of today's filing, Georgia Power is requesting to decertify and retire 15 coal- and oil-fired generating units totaling 2,061 megawatts (MW): Units 3 and 4 at Plant Branch in Putnam County; units 1-5 at Plant Yates in Coweta County; units 1 and 2 at Plant McManus in Glynn County; and units 1-4 at Plant Kraft in Chatham County; and Boulevard units 2 and 3, also in Chatham County. In addition, the company is requesting to decertify and sell Plant Bowen Unit 6, which has a rating of 32 MW, bringing the total of retired capacity to 2,093 MW.
I don’t think the company links these closures explicitly to the two new reactors at Vogtle, but consider:
As recently as a year ago, Georgia Power and its parent, Atlanta-based Southern Co., complained about new environmental regulations to reduce toxic emissions from power plants, saying those rules could force the utility to close several coal plants and threaten peak capacity. Company officials said that is no longer a concern because long-term demand is not as high as they once predicted.
Once a dominant fuel for electricity generation, coal’s use will continue to diminish as Georgia Power closes more than a dozen coal and oil-fired units.
And that’s because they do not expect to open any new coal-fired units to replace the closed units.
How about natural gas?
Also, Georgia Power will request converting units 6 and 7 at Plant Yates from coal to natural gas, and will switch from burning Central Appalachian coal to burning Powder River Basin coal at Plant McIntosh Unit 1, pending a successful test burn and further study.
So two more units will halve their carbon emissions. I have no idea of the implications of changing coal type at McIntosh – I’ll leave that to black rock mavens to explain – though I reckon it is meant to improve the facility’s emissions profile.
So no new coal units, a switch of two units to natural gas – and nuclear energy? Well, the story about the filing mentions it only in passing, so let’s tell that part of the story ourselves: the two new reactors will pack about 2234 megawatts capacity. Hmm – coal out, about 2061 megawatts, nuclear in, about 2234. Seems pretty quid pro quo to me, at least as a correlation.
The switchover to natural gas, the build out of nuclear energy, the development of renewable energy sources – Georgia Power expects to field 1500 megawatts of capacity by 2016 – suggests a rapidly changing, environmentally aware and nuclear-friendly energy portfolio. Just to put a cherry on it, let’s add this to our data points:
The continuing expansion of renewable energy technologies, advances in energy efficiency, and the rapid shift from coal to natural gas for generating electricity combined to bring down U.S. carbon dioxide emissions last year to their lowest levels since 1994, according to a report by Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
And it’s only going to get better when the new reactors in Georgia (and South Carolina) go online later this decade. Still, it’s all good – in miniature or life size.