"Those communities and downwind areas have been suffering for a long time from the pollution from these plants," said Jenna Garland, spokesperson for the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign in the Southeast.
The EPA rules require new and existing coal- and oil-fired plants to reduce air pollutants – including mercury, arsenic, chromium, nickel, hydrochloric acid and hydrofluoric acid, among others – by 2015. Fine particles and sulfur dioxide emissions also must be reduced.
Nationwide, 40 percent of all coal-fired burners covered by the new standards will need upgraded pollution controls, the EPA estimates.
Those upgrades will cost utilities $9.6 billion, but the health benefits in 2016 alone from the reduced pollution range from $37 billion to $90 billion, according to the EPA.
For Georgia Power, the cost in plant upgrades is too steep. The company plans to decertify the units by April 16, 2015, when the standards kick in. Two of the seven burners at Yates will stay open, switching to natural gas. Two other coal plants – Plant Branch near Milledgeville and Plant Kraft near Savannah – and one oil-fired plant– Plant McManus near Brunswick – will go dark.
Coal brought jobs, tax revenues
For communities that have felt fossil fuel's heavy hand for decades, the change will be sweeping.
All four have also come to depend on the jobs and tax revenue the plants have brought, though it hasn't been a fair trade: Plant Yates has brought jobs and tax revenue to Sargent, but little other economic growth has come to the nearby neighborhoods. The areas surrounding Georgia's soon-to-close coal units are some of the poorest in the state. The average per capita income within three miles of Plant Yates is $18,720.
Near Plant Branch, ranked as the 10th dirtiest coal plant in the nation in 2011 by the National Natural Resources Defense Council, the average income within three miles is $22,702. For Savannah's Plant Kraft, also built in the 1950s, it's $16,348. Both are slated for closure. Georgia's average per capita income is $25,400.
No jobs will be lost as the company weans itself off coal, Georgia Power spokesman Mark Williams said. But 480 employees will either be relocated or given early retirement. The company realizes that there will be impacts on these communities. "But we have to do what's in the best interest of our customers," he added. "We have to do whatever we can to make sure that electricity is reliable and affordable."
Billy Webster is the county commissioner for Putnam County, home of Plant Branch. The self-described conservative and tree-hugger said that no one near the plant, on the banks of Lake Sinclair in middle Georgia, likes the pollution from coal, but this already-poor area will have to scramble to make up for lost tax income. Tax increases are looming for the county's 21,000 residents.
"People are coming to the realization that this is going to be devastating," Webster said. "In this little community, it's really hitting us the hardest."
In Coweta County, Yates paid upwards of $3.5 million in property taxes in 2012, 12 percent of the county's take that year, according to the county budget. Plant Branch paid Putnam County about $1 million in 2012, 14 percent of the county's property tax revenue.
Dropping the coal- and oil-fired burners at the four power plants means a loss of 2,061 megawatts of energy, according to Georgia Power. The utility will make up that capacity with three new natural gas units that recently came online, as well as through energy efficiency, new solar investments and slower economic growth.
Additional energy capacity will come from two new reactors at Plant Vogtle, a nuclear power plant in eastern Georgia, near the South Carolina border, that Georgia Power owns jointly with Oglethorpe Power Corp., the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia and Dalton Utilities. Vogtle is the nation's first new nuclear construction in decades. The new reactors are expected to open in 2017, but the construction has been plagued by delays and cost overruns.