By Scott DiSavino
Jan 16 (Reuters) - Southern Co's Alabama Power unit plans to run three coal power plants with a total capacity over 1,600 megawatts on cleaner natural gas fuel in the coming years to comply with federal environmental rules.
Alabama Power wants to add gas capability to the four 255-megawatt Units 1-4 at the Gaston coal plant in Alabama by 2016 so they can run primarily on gas going forward.
Alabama Power said it wants to add gas capability to the units to comply with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), which requires power companies to reduce mercury and other air emissions.
Since 2009, U.S. energy companies have shut or converted over 22,000 MW of coal-fired power plants.
This is partly due to recently weak gas prices from record shale production making it uneconomic for generators to upgrade older and smaller coal units to meet increasingly strict federal and state environmental rules.
Alabama Power's four Gaston units will still have the ability to burn coal in case of some sort of gas emergency, but the company noted it was very unlikely the units will ever burn coal again.
At the other Gaston unit, the 842-MW Unit 5, Alabama Power said it is adding a baghouse in 2016 so that unit will continue to use coal.
Alabama Power said it applied for the Gaston air permits with state regulators in mid 2013.
In addition, Alabama Power said it expects to be running both 65-MW Units 1 and 2 at the Gadsden coal and gas plant in Alabama on natural gas in 2015. The Gadsden plant already has the capability to run on either coal or gas.
Alabama Power also expects the 138-MW Unit 1, 137-MW Unit 2 and 249-MW Unit 3 at the Barry coal plant in Alabama to be running on natural gas in 2016. The company said the Barry units will lose the capability to use coal going forward.
Alabama Power currently operates about 13,600 MW of generating capacity, including about 8,000 MW from coal-fired units, 2,100 MW from gas, 1,700 MW from nuclear and 1,700 MW from hydro, according to federal data.