Aug 11, 2010

Science Scene - Coal and the EPA?

Although it's not getting much attention, the EPA is currently proposing a series of pollution rules for the nation's fleet of coal plants that could end up having an enormous climate impact.

The first thing to note is that coal-fired power plants don't just emit heat-trapping gases that warm the planet. They also emit mercury, which accumulates in fish and may cause developmental problems in young children. They emit sulfur-dioxide, which creates acid rain. They send up nitrogen-dioxide, which helps form ground-level ozone that aggrevates respiratory and cardiovascular problems.

The EPA is currently trying to knuckle down on these side effects. Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is required to continually update pollution limits to reflect the latest science. The U.S. District Court, for instance, has ordered the EPA to set new mercury standards by the end of next year. As a result, new rules are now coming on smog-forming pollutants, on mercury, on coal ash... None of these regulations have anything to do with climate change per se. But according to industry analysts, many coal plants will have to shut down as a result, and that will affect the carbon picture quite significantly.  Many of those plants are about 50 years old and are already inefficient, pollution investiment is not going to be justifiable..

Francois Broquin, a co-author of reports on coal by Bernstein Research, said the combined rules could push as much as 20 percent of U.S. coal-fired electric generation capacity to retire by 2015. "Obviously that will have an impact," he said.  [Lest you have any doubt, this will have a huge impact on your electricity prices as about 60% of our energy production is coal based]

That's an eye-popping number. If 20 percent of U.S. coal generation gets retired in the next five years, that would lead to a roughly 7 percent decrease in the country's overall carbon emissions. That's already nearly halfway to Obama's pledge at Copenhagen to cut emissions 17 percent by 2020.

The next question, then, is what will replace all those coal plants. Right now, many power companies are leaning toward cleaner natural gas, which is expected to stay cheap thanks to the recent discovery of vast new shale reserves. But some utilities may lean toward renewable sources like solar or wind—or even invest in efficiency, the cheapest power source of all.

It's also worth noting that most of these coming pollution restrictions easily pass cost-benefit analyses. The EPA, for instance, is proposing to cut U.S. mercury emissions by 50 percent. According to its own analysis, the cost of this rule will come to $3.6 billion per year, while the health benefits would amount to $44 billion annually: "These benefits include preventing between 2,000 and 5,200 premature deaths, and about 36,000 asthma attacks a year." Indeed, it's quite possible that these air-quality rules could end up doing even more for public health than the giant health care bill passed earlier this year. That alone should counteract claims that curbing fossil-fuel pollution is somehow unaffordable or not worth doing.  [I find this analysis suspect, since I think the implementation cost to replace 12% of our nations electricity supply is going to cost more than $3.6B per year, but the estimated health care cost, even if inflated by two or three times is astounding]



  1. When the immediate political climate won't support a climate-energy bill, vee still haf vays!!

  2. I don't know if I can believe that the coal industry will go quietly along with compliance. If the last mine accident is any indication, when it comes to maximum profits against low cost at any expense, the coal industry has shown its true colors.

    The culture of the industry needs to change. I am not sure if they even believe as strongly about the poisons surrounding their industry. That is what makes the figures in benefits so 'pie in the sky', because the coal industry will be hard pressed to build the infrastructure to make coal cleaner...

  3. Hi Ken,
    In this case, I think change is good ... especially when you consider that we can stop so many premature deaths.


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