N.C. power company will shutter 11 coal-fired plants

RALEIGH, N.C. — Progress Energy plans to mothball 11 coal-burning power plants in the state, a move that signals the beginning of the end of the era of cheap coal that has defined the state's electricity production for decades.

The Raleigh electric utility is moving to shutter older coal-burning plants because it's becoming too expensive to modify the older plants to comply with ever-tougher environmental regulations. The aging plants, including one in Chatham County, produce 12.5 percent of the power company's electricity but lack pollution-trapping "scrubber" technology.

Progress officials anticipate a slew of new federal restrictions on air pollution that crosses state lines, on mercury emissions and on waste pits that store coal ash.

For the power company it came down to simple math. The cost of replacing those plants with new ones mostly fueled by natural gas would be about $1.5 billion. The cost of retrofitting all 11 of the old coal-burning plants to cut emissions is at least $2 billion and rising.

"We would have had to put some kind of environmental retrofits on all these plants eventually," said Lloyd Yates, chief executive of Progress Energy's operations in the Carolinas.

Additionally, Congress is debating proposals that would require cutting greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80 percent, with penalties for noncompliance. Currently there is no technology commercially available that can trap greenhouse gas emissions.

That creates enormous challenges for North Carolina, a state in which more than half the electricity is generated from coal. An abundant domestic source of energy, coal is also a major source of global warming.

The United States has more than 200 years of available coal reserves, but in recent years dozens of power companies have scrapped plans to build coal-fired power plants because of concern about global warming, air pollution and mining practices that strip mountain tops.

Progress, which had previously vowed not to build another coal-burning power plant, is now going further and dismantling existing ones. The request must still be approved by the N.C. Utilities Commission.