Unit at Largest U.S. Coal Plant Will Close

A Georgia power plant that has held the title of the largest coal-fired facility in the U.S. will give up that title by 2022, as the board of directors of a utility that owns a portion of the plant has agreed to a deal that will result in the closure of Unit 4 at the Robert W. Scherer Generating Facility near Macon.

The Jacksonville (Fla.) Electric Authority (JEA) and Florida Power & Light (FPL) have owned the 848-MW Unit 4 at Plant Scherer since 1989. JEA’s board on June 26 entered into a 20-year power purchase agreement (PPA) with FPL for natural gas-fired and possibly solar power generation. That generation will replace the power output from Unit 4 at Scherer, leading FPL—which owns 76% of the unit—to say it will close that generator by Jan. 1, 2022. The PPA is expected to be in effect by that date. Scherer’s other three units will continue to burn coal, and JEA will continue with its ownership stake until Unit 4 is fully decommissioned.

“This has been a successful mutually beneficial partnership and is just one of such joint asset ownership and operating agreements between JEA and FPL, including the St. Johns River Power Park and 500kv [kilovolt] transmission lines,” said Paul McElroy, JEA interim CEO and managing director, in a statement. “While the past several years have presented challenges and difficult circumstances, with the JEA sale process over and behind us, the time is right to focus on future operating partnerships. We continue to create value for both utilities and extend our strong operating relationship with FPL.”

Unit 4 at Plant Scherer, the largest coal-fired power plant in the U.S. in terms of generation capacity, will be retired by 2022 under an agreement reached between co-owners Florida Power & Light and Jacksonville (Fla.) Electric Authority. Courtesy: Georgia Power

Georgia Power, which operates Plant Scherer, began operation of the facility’s first unit in 1982, in the small town of Juliette, Georgia. The plant eventually grew to four coal-fired units, each with several utilities owning various percentages of those units. The plant’s generation capacity of about 3,520 MW makes it the largest coal-fired power plant in the U.S.

Plant Scherer in 2017 was chosen as the Powder River Basin Coal Users’ Group Plant of the Year.

With the closure of Unit 4 at Scherer, Georgia Power’s Plant Bowen, located near Euharlee, Georgia, will become the nation’s largest coal plant, with generation capacity of nearly 3,400 MW.

Unanimous Approval

The JEA board unanimously approved Friday’s deal. The group said switching from the coal-fired power unit to natural gas will reduce the utility’s costs by about 33%, with a possible savings of about $191 million over the 20-year life of the contract. JEA also said switching from coal to natural gas will reduce the utility’s carbon emissions by about 1.3 million tons annually.

The 20-year PPA includes a fixed price for natural gas for the first 10 years. The agreement includes an option to switch to solar power for the final 10 years.

“We are happy to see JEA’s unanimous decision to divest from the nation’s largest coal plant,” said Janet Stanko, chair of Sierra Club’s Northeast Florida group, in a statement. “CEO Paul McElroy recognized that the power from Plant Scherer was the highest cost in the utility’s portfolio, a trend that has been happening across the country. Coal is the dirtiest fuel for electricity generation in pollutants and carbon emissions. We are particularly happy about this decision as the urgency to retire coal rises every day as we deal with the devastating impact of climate change and we are particularly happy to see that there is the option to increase JEA’s solar potential as part of the power purchase agreement.”

String of Coal Retirements

The other three units at Plant Scherer are owned by Georgia Power, Oglethorpe Power, the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia, and the city of Dalton, Georgia. Southern Co., the parent of Georgia Power, recently committed to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, which means Plant Bowen and the utility’s other coal-fired plants could be retired in the coming years.

The Plant Scherer closure is the latest in a string of coal plant retirements announced in recent weeks. The board of directors of Colorado Springs Utilities in Colorado on June 26 voted to close that utility’s remaining coal units, just days after another Colorado utility said it would close its last operating coal plant 16 years ahead of schedule.

Tucson Electric Power (TEP) last week in its latest Integrated Resource Plan said it would ramp down and then retire its last remaining two coal-fired units at its Springerville (Ariz.) Generating Station by 2032. TEP had earlier ended its relationship with the Navajo Generating Station coal plant owned by Arizona utility Salt River Project; the NGS closed last year.

Vectren Corp., the electric utility that serves much of southern Indiana, on June 15 said it would shutter its remaining coal-fired power plants and transition to renewable energy. That announcement came about two years after Northern Indiana Public Service Co., which serves much of the northern part of the state, announced a similar plan.

Wisconsin-based Alliant Energy on May 22 said it would retire the coal-fired Edgewater Generating Station in Sheboygan by year-end 2022. GenOn Holdings, a Texas company, on May 15 announced it would retire three coal units at its Dickerson Generating Station in Maryland.

Darrell Proctor is associate editor for POWER (@DarrellProctor1, @POWERmagazine).

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