ATLANTA — Georgia Power is looking at ways to reduce its reliance on coal for producing electricity, and hints about its plans could be released this week.
The utility, a division of the Atlanta-based Southern Co., is set to release a 20-year energy plan on Thursday. That report is expected to lay out a blueprint for power production for a generation.
It was reported that 70 percent of Georgia Power's fuel came from coal five years ago, but that number is now down to 47 percent.
The change comes as Southern Co. and other utilities are being pushed by environmental rules to rely less on coal.
Georgia Power recently announced it will close 15 coal and oil-fired units, removing 20 percent of electrical capacity from its power grid.
Executives with the utility have shied away from saying how they would replace the electrical capacity if coal and oil units are shuttered. Georgia Power has won approval to buy electricity produced by natural gas from its sister company Southern Power, which could be a sign of what's ahead.
"We are in the midst of a significant transition in our fleet that will result in a more diverse fuel portfolio — including nuclear, 21st century coal, natural gas, renewables and energy efficiency," said Paul Bowers, Georgia Power's president and chief executive officer.
It is unclear whether more nuclear reactors will be built even though executives have said they would like to. Federal regulators are not approving any new projects while trying to figure out long-term storage plans for used nuclear fuel.
Environmentalists continue to press for increasing the use of solar and wind power, as well as coming up with more with energy-efficient technology. Georgia Power has agreed to buy more solar from independents, and the Sierra Club said the company should do the same with wind power, even if it has to come from other states where the resource is more viable.
Georgia Power's sister utility, Alabama Power Co., has agreed to buy wind energy from Oklahoma.
"(Relying so heavily on natural gas) is kind of a big gamble. It's a pendulum switch," said Colleen Kiernan, president of the Sierra Club's Georgia Chapter. Wind is an intermittent resource and, as with other sources of electricity, becomes less efficient if it has to be transported from far away.
The Environmental Protection Agency issued rules to reduce air pollution from the natural gas drilling process but has not placed regulations on natural gas-fired power plants.
This year is critical for utilities ordered to reduce emissions by shutting down coal-fired units or equipping them with pollution controls. Companies must meet a federal deadline of 2015 — 2016 if granted an extension — to comply with environmental rules to curb mercury and other air toxins.
Coal may have a role in the future: Georgia Power's sister utility in Mississippi is building a plant that converts coal to gas, then strips the carbon dioxide and other pollutants. Company executives have said the technology, if successful, it could be used across Southern's four-state territory.