Clean coal technology in Mississippi
It’s a blow to the coal industry. Considered one of capstones of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, on June 2 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed stringent state-specific rules for carbon emissions to amend Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act. The nation’s aging coal-fired power plants are front and center of the rulemaking.
At stake is a major transition, from an electricity portfolio dominated by coal, to one dominated by clean technologies. Hundreds of thousands of jobs in the coal industry will be cut, while clean technology will rise to become the dominant power paradigm. Already, the EPA’s 2011 Mercury and Air Toxic Standards have caused utilities to take action. They have four years to comply. By the end of 2012, 14,000 MW of coal-fired capacity had been retired. The Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign posts a tally of 168 retired plants (including planned retirements) with 355 more to go.
The EPA’s proposed rule – called the Clean Power Plan — requires states to develop and adopt plans to cut emissions by 30% in aggregate from 2005 levels by 2030. EPA’s final rulemaking is expected mid-2015, with plans due mid-2016. Note that differing levels of reductions are required for each state. And those states that do not do so within a year will be provided plans by the EPA.
In addition to CO2 mitigation, the proposed rule will result in correspondingly fewer “co-pollutants” such as sulfur dioxide, mercury, and nitrous oxides in the atmosphere. It is anticipated that the new rules will result in 2,700 – 6,600 fewer premature deaths, and avoid up to 150,000 cases of childhood asthma attacks, resulting in $93 billion in public health benefits.
Analysts believe the proposed rule is a bonanza for natural gas and gas-fired plants, and a bust for the domestic coal industry and utilities that have relied on this source of generation for years. For states that seek to build additional capacity, new coal plants will have to achieve an emissions level of 1,100 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour, a level possible only with the most advanced coal technologies combined with costly carbon capture and storage.
The Natural Resources Defense Council calls this “the super bowl of climate politics.” Yes, power plants are the single largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions, responsible for ~38% of the nation’s total. (Transportation is 32%.) And yes, coal-fired power plants generated 45% of the nation’s electricity in 2010. According to the Sierra Club, of the 963 coal-fired units operating in late 2013, 523 or 65% are at least 40 years old. Many were built when Eisenhower was president. They lack advanced technologies and are prime opportunities for GHG reductions.
Not so fast says the coal industry. According to the World Coal Association, coal provides around 30% of global primary energy needs, generates 41% of the world’s electricity and is used in the production of 70% of the world’s steel. Coal reserves are sufficient for more than 100 years at the current rate of production. In December 2012, the International Energy Agency projected coal to come close to surpassing oil as the world’s main energy source by 2017. Since the tightening of regulations on coal-fired generation in America, exports have doubled, from 58 million tonnes in 2010 to 118 million tonnes in 2012.
EPA’s proposed rulemaking will regulate carbon emissions from existing power plants under Section 111(d) of the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments. Using a complex methodology, states have been assigned varying goals by the EPA based on their stock of power plants, anticipated plant closures, and programs to promote renewables. Some states claim that they will not have to close additional coal-fired plants to meet their specified targets while others are already claiming hardship in compliance.
Some call the EPA’s rules mysterious: Texas emits more CO2 than any other state, 232.3 million tonnes of CO2 in 2012. Washington is one of the smallest annual emitters at 6.1 MMT. But Texas has to cut its emissions by 39% while Washington has to cut its emissions by 72%. Furthermore, Washington’s average power plant emission rate is the fifth lowest in the nation, at 763 pounds of CO2 per MWh (after California, Maine, Idaho, and Vermont).
Some say that the date EPA published its proposed rule marked the beginning of a new era for state energy and environmental regulators. It places responsibility clearly on the states. Some claim that the proposal reflects “unprecedented, comprehensive, and flexible integration of energy and environmental policy.” It relies on essential “building blocks” – such as robust DSM programs and retiring plants – to achieve the specific state and aggregate reductions. It will require states to plan and execute emissions reductions strategies to achieve stated goals.
EPA’s proposed ruling affords states a variety of options to meet the goals, such as increasing power plant efficiency, switching from coal to natural gas, increasing renewable energy usage, and increasing end-use energy efficiency. Under the proposal, “outside the fence” emissions reductions such as energy efficiency and renewable energy are also fair game. Carbon markets – buying offsets – can also be used.
An interesting development creates an unlikely marriage between the coal and oil industries. New EPA rules have loosened restrictions pertaining to drinking water and CO2 injection. Given EPA rules to ratchet back CO2 emissions, coal-fired power plants are now capturing CO2 and re-injecting it back into the Earth for enhanced oil recovery. Critics point out that for every 1 tonne of CO2 captured, 4 tonnes will be released when the oil is burned. So far, there are four coal-fired plants in the United States that are shunting their gases to enhanced oil recovery. DeKalb, Mississippi is home to America’s cleanest burning and most expensive coal-fired power plant. Its gases are captured and injected for enhanced oil recovery.