ATLANTA — Georgia is home to three of the nation's 100 dirtiest power plants, the Atlanta-based Environment Georgia Research & Policy Center reported Monday.
Georgia Power's Plant Bowen near Cartersville topped the Georgia list for carbon emissions and is ranked 23rd in the country. Cobb County's own Plant McDonough-Atkinson came second in the list and is ranked 34th in the country.
Two of Plant Bowen's four coal-burning units were due to be retired by 2028 under a proposal the Atlanta-based utility filed with the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC) last January.
But a 14-page agreement Georgia Power and the PSC's Public Interest Advocacy staff reached last week would leave that decision up to the commission, contingent upon the "completion of necessary transmission system improvements."
Environment Georgia's new report ranks power plants across the U.S. by their contribution to climate change based on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) latest eGRID data.
The dirtiest power plants have an outsized impact: In 2020, the 10 most climate-polluting plants in Georgia were responsible for 91.5% of global warming emissions from the power sector despite only generating 56.5% of total electricity, according to the report.
Georgia has 18 fossil fuel-burning plants — six that burn coal and 12 that burn gas.
"Our changing climate affects every aspect of our lives, from the air we breathe in our neighborhoods to the food we grow in Georgia," said Jennette Gayer, Environment Georgia's state director.
"Dirty power plants threaten our health and the climate, yet these super-polluters have filled the skies with pollution for decades without consequence. We need to hold the worst power plants accountable for damaging our climate."
While Plant Bowen burns coal, eight of Georgia's 10 dirtiest power plants are fired by methane gas. New research on methane leaks finds that the emissions associated with extracting and transporting methane are a serious climate problem.
Although burning methane gas releases less carbon dioxide than burning coal, the report ranked Plant McDonough, a gas-fired plant along the Chattahoochee River just south of Vinings, as the state's second dirtiest.
Georgia Power used to burn coal at Plant McDonough until it retired its coal units there in 2011 and converted the plant to burn natural gas. The plant's three gas units can generate 2,520 megawatts of electricity, according to Georgia Power, and can supply enough energy to power about 1.7 million homes.
Plant McDonough has also been controversial because of its unlined coal ash pits. Coal ash, the waste leftover from coal burning, contains contaminants including mercury, cadmium and arsenic that can pollute groundwater and drinking water as well as air.
Plant McDonough's ash site is among 10 ash ponds Georgia Power plans to close in place by 2028. Ash from the utility's other 19 ponds at coal plants across Georgia will be closed by excavating and removing the ash. A Georgia Power executive told the state Public Service Commission earlier this year that those ash sites that are closed in place will continue to expose ash to groundwater.
State Rep. Mary Frances Williams, D-Marietta has pushed for the state government to do more to ensure the ash at Plant McDonough does not contaminate groundwater or the nearby river.
"There's nothing more important than safe drinking water for all of us," Williams said. "And I hope that Georgia Power will do the right thing and decide to dispose of the coal ash in a way that doesn't threaten the Chattahoochee River, which is the source of most of our drinking water in the metro area."
While burning natural gas produces less carbon dioxide than coal, Williams said the amount of CO2 emissions being produced at McDonough and other plants is still concerning.
"That is still creating a problem with carbon, and there's nothing much scarier in this world today than global warming," Williams said. "... If it's not time to get worried now, I don't know when it will be time."
Coal-burning Plant Scherer, near Macon, was third on Georgia's dirtiest-plants list.
To get power plant pollution under control, the report recommends limiting emissions from power plants and accelerating Georgia's transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. Georgia Power is proposing to expand its renewable energy portfolio by 2,300 megawatts by 2029.
Environmental advocates are worried a U.S. Supreme Court ruling expected this month in a West Virginia case could hamstring the EPA's ability to set limits on carbon emissions from power plants.
"We can repower our state more cleanly and safely with renewable energy," Gayer said. "We hope the Public Service Commission will take steps to shut down Plant Bowen, our state's dirtiest power plant."
Georgia Power spokesman John Kraft responded to the Environment Georgia report by noting the utility has reduced its carbon emissions by 60% since 2007 and now relies on coal for only 15% of its energy generating capacity.
"We are committed to making smart investments today so that our customers can continue to have clean, safe, reliable and affordable energy for decades to come," he said.
"Our long-term planning process, the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), has allowed us to work with the Georgia Public Service Commission to make significant, cost-effective and reliable resource planning decisions that have resulted in a mix of lower-carbon energy resources that benefit all customers."
Top 10 dirtiest power plants in Georgia, 2020
Plant County Fuel Carbon dioxide equivalent emissions
Bowen Bartow Coal 7.93
McDonough Cobb Gas 6.89
Scherer Monroe Coal 6.86
McIntosh Effingham Gas 3.28
Wansley (55965) Heard Gas 3.14
Smith Energy Facility Murray Gas 2.84
Yates Coweta Gas 1.35
Chattahoochee Energy Facility Heard Gas 1.28
Wansley (7946) Heard Gas 1.21
Effingham Energy Facility Gas 1.12
million metric tons
Source: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency