New clean air rule to help tame coal plant monster

Our guest blogger (via WR) is Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch.

Coal plantYesterday, the Obama administration proposed a sweeping plan to reduce power plant emissions that cross state lines and kill tens of thousands of Americans every year. The proposed Clean Air Transport Rule replaces the Bush administration’s so-called “clean air interstate rule” (CAIR) that was shot down by the courts because it permitted so much interstate emission trading that even some power companies filed suit. A federal court ordered EPA to fix the shaky legal grounds of the Bush plan. Power industry pollution remains so pervasive “” and so often blows from one state to another “” that it basically handcuffs state efforts to reduce pollution within a state’s borders. As EPA noted in a fact sheet:

Specifically, this proposal would require significant reductions in sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions that cross state lines. These pollutants react in the atmosphere to form fine particles and ground-level ozone and are transported long distances, making it difficult for other states to achieve national clean air standards.

Emissions reductions will begin in 2012. By 2014, “the rule and other state and EPA actions would reduce power plant SO2 emissions by 71 percent over 2005 levels,” and power plant NOx emissions “would drop by 52 percent.”

It has been nearly 40 years since passage of the landmark Clean Air Act of 1970. Since then, we’ve made significant progress towards cleaner air. Cars are dramatically cleaner. Lead is gone from gasoline. New trucks no longer belch out the familiar puff of smoke. And EPA statistics document the continuing overall trend of cleaner air with respect to traditional pollutants. Despite that progress, one major source of air pollution remains a notorious problem: the electric power industry. Indeed a recent assessment by Ceres, the Natural Resources Defense Council and several power companies described the footprint of fossil-fueled power plants:

In 2008, power plants were responsible for 66 percent of SO2 [sulfur dioxide] emissions, 19 percent of NOx [smog-forming nitrogen oxides] emissions, and 72 percent of toxic mercury emissions in the U.S. – not to mention that the electric industry also pumps out nearly 40 percent of the nation’s heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions.

A recent Clean Air Watch survey noted that no fewer than 40 states and the District of Columbia have experienced unhealthful levels of smog so far this year.

The Obama EPA hopes to put the cleanup concept on a sound legal footing by limiting the amount of emission trading. Anyone interested in clean air should hope this plan holds up in court. EPA projects the plan could prevent up to 36,000 premature deaths a year – and bring monetary benefits of at least $120 billion a year – at an annual cost of about $2.2 billion.

It is a big step towards taming the environmental monster known as the coal-fired power plant. But it is only the first step. EPA plans nest year to propose rules to limit mercury and other toxic emissions including arsenic, dioxins and hydrochloric acid. The power industry has been evading toxic pollution requirements for two decades.

EPA has also pledged to follow up with a subsequent interstate pollution rule, if needed, as it surely will be, to make further reductions in smog-forming power plant emissions after the agency moves to set tougher national health standards for ozone, or smog, as it plans to do by the end of the summer.

Frank O’Donnell (a Wonk Room cross-post)

JR:  And then, of course, we need a price for CO2.

10 Responses to New clean air rule to help tame coal plant monster

  1. This effort and related ones that internalize the costs of coal fired power generation are important in that they should drive some of the older “grandfathered” coal plants into retirement. This is not a substitute for a price on CO2 (which will push even more strongly for such retirements) but it’s a necessary step along the way. Avoiding emissions of these other pollutants is a benefit to society that is often omitted in economic analyses of the costs of reducing carbon emissions, but this benefit can be substantial. And these regulations should force states and utilities to consider them in evaluating whether to keep old coal plants operating.

  2. catman306 says:

    I wonder if any coal fired generation plant has ever been converted to run on natural gas? Would it involve more than just putting gas jets in the boilers after removing the coal specific machinery? Then the steam turbines and generators could just be used as is. Sounds a whole lot cheaper than building a whole new plant.

    I know, I know. Saving money is monetary heresy.

  3. Mark says:

    from “The Hype about hydrogen” by Joe Romm, P 131:

    “scientists are gaining a deeper understanding just how much aerosols have been shielding us from severe climate change. Sulfate aerosols which can come from sources such as coal plants, have a cooling effect”

    so, good and bad.

    The corner we are allowing coal and oil companies to back us into is getting smaller isn’t it?

  4. Not A Lawyer says:

    @catman306 — by way of interesting timing, the American Public Power Association put out a big report today on what it would take to basically convert all coal-fired generation to natural gas. They put the cost of just replacing the plants at $335 billion (this doesn’t include new pipeline capacity, new storage capacity, new production wells, etc). I don’t see any mention of how many previous coal-to-gas conversions have occurred, but they claim most involved completely replacing the coal unit with a new gas-fired unit, rather than retrofitting/converting, though they say it is technically feasible.

  5. catman306 says:

    Maybe people like me give spin doctors a reason to be employed? Do you suppose that maybe artificially raising the costs of conversion of coal plants to gas will keep that possibility out of American consciousness? And maybe the owners of coal stock don’t own power utility stock?

    Why do I have so much trouble believing anything that comes from the American Public Power Association? Why do I need to be a member to read their daily releases?

    But I will say I’m not a lawyer, either.

  6. Not A Lawyer says:

    Try this link. It’s the entire report, but I’m pretty sure it’s publicly accessible. They buried the link on their front page.

  7. catman306 says:

    So the biggest reason is that a boiler conversion from coal to natural gas would result in a 10 to 15% reduction in fuel efficiency. And, of course, the time value of moneys used to build the original coal plants even though almost all of their physical plant could be left in place and reused. (page 87)

    Those are real reasons, but only economic reasons, for the unpopularity of converting coal plants to gas plants at the boiler level. Not much mention of the benefits to the atmosphere and environment of not burning so much coal.

    Please don’t let the idea of converting coal boilers to natural gas get out there!

  8. riverat says:

    I believe gas turbines are a considerably more efficient way to generate electricity than gas fired boilers. But since we can’t build turbines instantly it might be helpful to convert some coal plants to gas in the interim.

  9. mike roddy says:

    From what I hear, the specifications of pretty much all of the gas and coal components differ, including for what sound like commodity items like turbines and boilers. Add to that the fact that older components are less efficient and more maintenance intensive anyway, and it might not be very practical to retrofit coal to gas.

    Better to just recycle all that metal and use it to build solar heliostats.

  10. Not A Lawyer says:

    Combined cycle gas turbines are very efficient. Close to 60%, I believe. Conventional pulverized coal boilers are about 35%, though some of the more efficient newer ultra-supercritical PC plants are over 40%.