ATLANTA - Although Georgia Power is preparing to invest billions of dollars in new technology to reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants, critics complain the risk of air pollution is greater than the need for cheaper electricity.
To some opponents, the term clean coal is an oxymoron.
In order to comply with federal clean-air rules and emission standards, the utility, which provides most of the state with electricity, already has spent $1 billion since 1990 to reduce its airborne pollutants by 40 percent.
In the next five years, it will spend $2 billion for installing environmental controls on its existing coal plants.
Before Georgia Power put on its first round of emission "scrubbers," the utility was contributing to 15 percent of the ozone in Atlanta, company spokeswoman Lynn Wallace said.
Since the late 1990s, that dropped to 6 percent in metro Atlanta because of the controls.
"That means the rest of the problem is cars and other sources," she said.
Scrubbers are used to remove sulfur and the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide from burning coal. Scrubbers can reduce sulfur emissions by 90 percent or more.
They are essentially large towers in which aqueous mixtures of lime or limestone "sorbents" are sprayed through the flue gases exiting a coal boiler. The lime/limestone absorbs the sulfur from the flue gas.
However, environmental groups, which routinely push state utility regulators to support more energy-efficient programs and renewable fuel sources, are not as sure coal emissions are going to be cleaned enough.
"Air emissions from Georgia power plants, although scheduled to be significantly reduced over the next eight years, continue to make the air in Georgia unhealthy to breathe," Sanders Moore, a member of the Georgia Conservancy, recently said in front of the Georgia Public Service Commission.
The commission in is in the middle of evaluating Georgia Power's long-term energy use plan, which includes blueprints for how it will generate electricity from switching two coal units to natural gas units to pursuing new nuclear reactors.
Because the cost for expensive new environmental controls gets passed on to consumers, the benefits have to be weighed with the cost of generating electricity.
"That's the balancing act that we always have to find," said Public Service Commissioner Stan Wise, who with the rest of the board has overseen a period of rising utility bills. "With the price of energy products, I wouldn't want to rule out one of our great natural resources, and that's coal. Of course, that makes me a pariah in some circles, but we've got to continue to explore all of our options."
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