Utility coal plants closing, natural gas to replace

Monday, September 17, 2012

A North Carolina utility closed one of its coal-fired power plants this past weekend, to be replaced with a natural gas-fueled combined cycle combustion turbine facility.  Duke Energy subsidiary Carolina Power & Light, which does business as Progress Energy Carolinas, announced on Friday that it would close its coal-fired H.F. Lee facility on September 15.  The Lee Plant closure is part of a broader shift away from utility and non-utility "merchant" use of coal to generate electricity, in favor of natural gas and other fuels.

Progress Energy Carolinas provides electricity to about 1.5 million customers in both North Carolina and South Carolina.  The utility owns more than 12,200 megawatts in generation capacity, and serves a 34,000 square mile territory, including the cities of Raleigh, Wilmington and Asheville in North Carolina and Florence and Sumter in South Carolina.

The Lee Plant's story resembles that of a number of other coal plants across the country.  Built in 1951 on the Neuse River near the town of Goldsboro, the plant was gradually expanded over time.  By the 1960s, the Lee Plant hosted three coal-fired units with a total generating capacity of 382 megawatts.  Four oil-fueled combustion turbine units were also added to the plant, adding another 75 MW of generating capacity, will be retired Oct. 1, 2012.

U.S. energy markets and environmental regulations continued to develop over the ensuing decades.  Most recently, tighter federal air emissions regulations and an abundant supply of low-cost natural gas have made older and smaller coal-fueled power plants uneconomic to operate.  As a result, owners are retiring these plants, and converting others to alternative fuels.  For example, last week utility Dominion Virginia Power announced plans to convert its Bremo Power Station in Virginia from coal to natural gas

Progress Energy Carolinas is following this trend.  The utility closed its coal-fired W.H. Weatherspoon power plant near Lumberton, N.C. last year.  It also plans to retire the remainder of its coal-fired plants without advanced environmental controls by the end of 2013: the Cape Fear Plant near Moncure, N.C., the Robinson coal-fired unit near Hartsville, S.C., and the L.V. Sutton Plant near Wilmington, N.C.  These coal-fired unit retirements will represent about a third of the utility's coal-powered fleet, or about 1,600 MW of generating capacity.

To replace the power produced from these closing plants, Progress Energy Carolinas is building new natural gas-fueled combined-cycle units.  Adjacent to the Lee Plant site, the utility is extending an existing natural gas pipeline and building a new, 920-MW natural gas-fueled combined-cycle facility.  This plant, along with the five dual-fueled combustion turbines at the existing Wayne County Energy Complex, will be called the H.F. Lee Energy Complex when complete.

Projections suggest that natural gas will remain available at a relatively low cost for the next twenty years.  At the same time, environmental regulations tend to grow tighter over time.  These two factors suggest that the current trend of utilities switching from coal to natural gas to fuel electric generation may continue for the foreseeable future.

1 comment:

Don Blankenship said...

It’s shaping up to be cold winter for the global sector. Despite healthy general demand from Asia and Europe, supplies remain in excess as many U.S. firms try to export their way out of the state-side crisis. Those robust supplies have caused global prices for the fuel to drop steadily across the board over the last few months.
Don Blankenship

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