Plant Scherer in Georgia — for years, the highest capacity coal-fired plant in the U.S. — will lose one of its four units to retirement, a sign that even the largest coal power plants are not immune to the economic pressures driving down coal’s standing in the U.S. generation mix.
On Friday the board of directors of Jacksonville municipal utility JEA, a minority owner of the 848-MW unit 4 at Scherer, agreed to a 20-year purchase agreement with Florida Power & Light, the majority owner of the unit, that will replace the capacity the municipal utility receives from unit 4 and lead to its closure on Jan. 1, 2022.
While the other three units at the plant are not affected by the decision, the closure of unit 4 will reduce the capacity of Scherer to 2,673 MW, making Southern Co.’s over 3,000-MW Plant Bowen, also in Georgia, now the largest coal-fired plant in the country, according to a statement from the Sierra Club.
Falling costs of competitive energy sources like renewables and natural gas, combined with new emissions regulations, have caused coal-fired generation to fall from producing 44% of U.S. electricity in 2009 to about 23% in 2019, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data. Smaller coal-fired plants, many of which were built in the 1950s and 1960s and have less operating capacity over which to spread the costs of new emissions controls, have been more likely to retire than newer, larger coal plants, as observed by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and others.
But Scherer unit 4’s impending retirement “is a clarion call that even the nation’s biggest coal plants don’t make economic sense,” Stephen Stetson, a senior representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, said in a statement. Scherer, in addition to being one of the largest coal-fired plants ever built in the U.S., came online in 1982.
The other three units are owned by Georgia Power, Oglethorpe Power, the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia and the city of Dalton, Georgia. Southern Co. recently announced a commitment to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, a goal that could entail the retirement of Bowen and other coal plants in the near future.