In 2008, 70 percent of the fuel used by Georgia Power to produce electricity came from coal. Today, the percentage is down to 47 and the company has announced that it will close 15 coal and oil-fired units.

Atlanta-based Georgia Power and its parent, Southern Company, are looking for new ways to reduce their four utilities’ reliance on coal. Georgia Power is expected to reveal the changes for the future Thursday at a scheduled release of its 20-year energy plan.

Over the years, coal was heralded as reliable and cheap, but blasted by critics as dirty and inefficient. Coal helped shape America’s history by powering steamships and railroad engines, but has come under scrutiny because of clean air standards and the dropping price of natural gas.

“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, renewable and energy efficiency,” Georgia Power President and CEO Paul Bowers told the AJC.

But coal may still have a place in future. Georgia Power’s sister utility in Mississippi is in the process of building a plant that converts coal to gas, removing the carbon dioxide and other pollutants. The project’s cost of $2.8 billion is almost a half-billion dollars more than original projections, and the project is not finished.

Traditional coal-fired plants could still face additional scrutiny. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued rules to reduce air pollution from natural gas drilling processes but no regulations have been placed on natural gas-fired power plants.

Many companies must meet a federal deadline of 2015 or 2016, if granted an extension to comply with environmental rules on pollution controls. This may also mean additional closures on the way.

With the EPA expected to issue additional mandates targeting power plants, the process only makes it more expensive to keep coal plants running.

“This is probably why Southern didn’t announce its revised strategy for its fleet sooner; who knows when the EPA is done on making environmental rules tighter?” David Parker, an analyst with Robert W. Baird & Co., said. “We thought 25-30 percent would be shut down and the rest get (pollution) equipment. Today, everybody, including Southern, is kind of redoing the math.”

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