Environmental controls for coal-fired plants are a win-win

conventional produce
Courtesy morguefile


By Nancy F. Parks

An international consulting firm found that coal-fired power plants that invest in pollution controls to meet stricter air quality standards can cash in on some financial benefits, while creating healthier communities.

Determining that pollution controls can make power plants more financially viable is important news for Pennsylvania because it is home to five of the top ten most polluting power plants in the country. Power plant owners often use the cost to comply with regulations as an excuse to avoid making the improvements that would clean up the air. Pennsylvania communities often are asked to choose between jobs and clean air. This study shows that citizens can have both clean power plants and good jobs.

In its study released in November 2004, Cambridge Energy Research Associates [CERA] concluded, The value of efficient large coal-fired power plants can actually increase rather than decrease with stringent environmental control programs.” According to the study, using state of the art pollution control devices allows power plants to switch to lower grade coal, which costs less.  This, combined with rising electricity prices and carefully planned cost recovery opportunities, can actually make plants more profitable. The report also determined that coal will continue to be the dominant fuel source for power generation in the United States.    

The report estimated that coal-fired power plants would have to invest $64 billion by the year 2020 in order to achieve large reductions in sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury.  According to estimates, for every $1 invested in pollution controls saves between $15 and $18 in health care costs, while reducing the premature deaths from pollutants to one-fifth of its current rate. Nationally, power plant pollution caused 38,200 heart attacks and 23,600 premature deaths each year, according to the Clean Air Task Force. The closer people live to a power plant, the greater the risk. Unfortunately, the Bush Administration is relaxing clean air rules and appears not to care if air pollutants injure children and their parents.  

Economically it only makes sense to contain and control air pollution, which makes Pennsylvania a better place to live and its economy better. 

Are Pennsylvania coal burners cheering?

Pennsylvania is home to 47 power plants; some of them have been operating since 1955. These 47 plants operate 137 separate boilers, called units.  About 42 percent of the units burn coal, while about 15 percent use natural gas as fuel and 6 percent use oil. 

Only one unit at newly reopened and re-powered Seward plant located in Indiana County has the best available technology – selective catalytic reduction (SCR) – as its primary nitrogen oxide control.  The Montour power plant located in Montour County, has 2 units with SCR as secondary nitrogen oxide controls. 

Most of the power plants are using an outdated technology, called low NOx  (nitrogen oxide) burners, which are inadequate to control pollutants. And they aren’t doing nearly enough.   Here in Pennsylvania more than 93 percent of nitrogen oxides [NOx], 88 percent of carbon dioxide [CO2], and 99 percent of mercury is released into the breathable air come from coal burning units.

Power plant pollution plays a role in asthma, acid rain, and in ground level ozone smog. Its pollution damages people’s lungs, kills Pennsylvania forests and sends your children and elderly parents to the hospital.  Ozone smog irritates your lungs and causes significant crop damage, estimated to exceed $1 billion.  Acid rain acidifies the soil, robbing our forest resource of the nutrients that it needs to grow in size and in quality.

Some of the most recently permitted power plants will burn waste coal, which contain higher levels of concentrated toxic constituents. While state of the art pollution controls can reduce the air pollution from burning waste coal, the leftover toxic solid waste is significant and needs careful handling to prevent the toxics from leaching into groundwater.

Based on a report by the Environmental Integrity Project, Pennsylvania power plants rank high on the list of polluters. Nine Pennsylvania power plants are among the top 50 dirtiest in the United States for the rate at which they spew out sulfur dioxide [SO2].   Five plants are in the top ten and all but one is located in the western part of the state. The five are: Allegheny Energy’s Hatfield’s Ferry plant in Green County and Armstrong plant in Kittanning; Reliant Energy’s power plant in Shawville, Clearfield County; Portland, Northampton County; and the Keystone power plant, Armstrong County. The Keystone power plant operating in western Pennsylvania since 1967, releases the highest amount of acid rain causing sulfur dioxide in the entire United States. 

Pennsylvania power plants also were shown to be significant contributors to carbon dioxide greenhouse gas emissions. The Eddystone power plant located on the Delaware River, one mile from Chester ranked the 7th highest emission rate of carbon dioxide in the nation. 

Four Pennsylvania plants are among the top 50 emitters in the U.S.  Further, four old Pennsylvania coal burners are among the top 50 nitrogen oxide/ozone smog polluters in the U.S.  Finally, one Pennsylvania power plant – Keystone -- ranked as the fourth highest emitter of mercury in the entire United States. Other Pennsylvania power plants were listed among the 50 worst for both the rate of neurotoxin mercury emission and total pounds.  Mercury is so toxic that tiny amounts can be a danger to human health.  In recognition of its danger, the Department of Environmental Protection has a special pick-up program to handle even minute quantities of mercury. 

PA Chapter policy is that no new power plants should built in the state and that existing coal-fired units should be re-engineered to use cleaner fuels.  Only when energy conservation is practiced in both residential and commercial settings, will it become apparent how many power plants are truly needed to meet Pennsylvania’s needs.

Nancy F. Parks is a member of the Moshannon Group and chairs the Chapter’s clean air committee.