DRAKESBORO, Ky. — In the shadow of Paradise Fossil Plant’s aging smokestacks, where white steam and carbon dioxide rise into the sky, outdated coal-fired generators are being replaced with one that runs on natural gas.
The change in Muhlenberg County, once the nation’s top producer of coal, is emblematic of what’s been happening across the U.S. as natural gas becomes cheaper and electric utilities try to meet stiffer carbon emissions rules the Obama administration announced this week.
When the $1 billion natural gas facility is finished in 2017, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the nation’s largest public utility, will shut down two coal-burning units at Paradise that date to the 1960s.
The Environmental Protection Agency says natural gas generators produce about half the carbon dioxide of coal-fired units, and a fraction of other harmful pollutants.
“It’s a fraction of what it is on a coal plant,” said Billy Sabin, who is managing the transition to the natural gas plant at the Paradise facility.
Natural gas is “available, cheap and perceived to be secure for a long time into the future,” said Charles Ebinger, director of the Energy Security Initiative at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.
Ebinger said utilities around the country anticipated that the new regulations would require huge capital spending, so many have opted to simply close their coal-fired plants and replace them with gas.
Coal supplies about 90 percent of the electricity in Kentucky, and about 40 percent of the nation’s power generation, compared with about 27 percent for natural gas.
But the efficient gas technology isn’t welcome by everyone in the county, where the first coal seams were dug in the 1800s and immortalized in John Prine’s song “Paradise,” with its lyrics: “Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken, Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man.”