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Progress Energy Inc. will close 11 coal-fired power plants at four sites in North Carolina by 2017 and replace the capacity with gas-burning units. The action is part of a trend in which utilities are shuttering older, smaller coal-burning units and embracing cheap natural gas. The power plants facing retirement in North Carolina were built between 1952 and 1972 and thus will be of retirement age by 2017. They constitute 30% of the utility's North Carolina coal capacity and, in an earlier era, might have been refurbished. But Progress has concluded that it would cost too much money to add scrubbers to reduce controlled pollutants like sulfur dioxide and it also suspects that it will cost too much, in coming years, to purchase the emission allowances that likely will be required for carbon dioxide emissions.

The coal-to-gas strategy will reduce the utility's total carbon-dioxide emissions significantly, although not by the goal set by President Obama, to cut emissions 17 percent by 2020. It is a single-digit number but it will move emissions in the right direction. After 2017, Progress would continue to operate three coal-fired plants in North Carolina, totaling 3,542 megawatts, in which it has invested more than $2 billion for pollution control equipment. That equipment curbs nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide emissions but does nothing to control carbon dioxide, regarded as the leading greenhouse gas. (WSJ, 12/2/2009)