by Luke Jones
Posted 10/14/2013 12:00 am
A study ranking the nations’ 50 most polluting power plants is highlighting some of the issues electric industries in Arkansas and elsewhere are facing as environmental regulations change.
The study was researched by the Environment America Research & Policy Center in Boston. According to the study, the U.S. emits the most carbon dioxide in the world after China. In 2011, the U.S. emitted 5,277 million metric tons of CO2, 2,159 of which came from the power sector.
The country has about 6,000 facilities that generate electricity, and about 30 percent of the pollution from those facilities comes from the 50 plants outlined.
The 50 plants account for 656 MMT, or more than 2 percent of the world’s energy-related carbon pollution.
At the top of the list is Georgia Power’s Scherer plant in Juliette, Ga., producing 21 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2011, more than the entire state of Maine.
Of the 50, two are located in Arkansas: No. 42 is the White Bluff coal plant in Redfield (Jefferson County), and No. 35 is the Independence coal plant in Newark (Independence County). The former produced 10.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions in 2011; the latter produced 11.1 million.
Both are owned by Entergy Arkansas Inc.
“All coal plants emit carbon dioxide,” said Chuck Barlow, vice president of environmental strategy and policy for Entergy Corp. “It’s not a surprise to anybody that coal plants emit carbon dioxide.”
Barlow said the list is more indicative of the country’s largest coal plants, as opposed to its dirtiest. He said Entergy has been responsible overall with its emissions.
“In 2001, we took a voluntary [emission] cap,” he said. “We were the first investor-owned utility in the country to do so. Our fleetwide cap was to stay 20 percent below [year] 2000-level emissions. That’s lower than the president’s goal. The president’s goal is 17 percent below 2005 emissions.”
In 2001, Entergy established a $25 million fund to support its emission target. In 2005 it added $3.25 million to that, and another $10 million was added in 2011.
Overall, Barlow said, Entergy has hit its 20 percent target.
“We’ve done things like make some of our plants more efficient,” he said. “We’ve made investments in our plants. We moved a good bit from our older gas plants to newer gas plants, and the newer gas plants are more efficient.”
But little work has been done to reduce emissions from coal plants.
“A lot of industrial engineers say there’s not a lot you can do,” Barlow said. “You’ve maybe got a 2 to 5 percent horizon you can meet, but a lot of industry folks say that beyond that it gets tremendously expensive.”
Regardless of whether Entergy’s coal plants can be improved, changes are taking place. New Environmental Protection Agency regulations, part of the Clean Air Act, are in the works.
In September, the EPA proposed standards for new coal and gas plants.
“The rule hasn’t been published in the Federal Register yet,” Barlow said. “Whenever we get done with the government shutdown, they will apply this rule, and it will apply to any plants that begin construction after that date.”
The coal plant standards, in particular, have been a cause of controversy since they require new plants to use an experimental technique called CCS, which traps emissions in geological formations.
For example, the Southeast Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnership in 2008 and 2009 tested CCS methods in Appalachian coal seams. About 1,000 tons of CO2 were injected into the seams, and have so far remained stable.
The problem is CCS is both expensive and complicated.
“Most people would tell you it is untested,” Barlow said. “It’s been a subject of great consternation.”
The technique is “on the cutting edge,” Barlow said, and is bound to start a big legal battle as energy companies may claim that the EPA shouldn’t require a technique that might not be feasible.
But there’s one factor that Barlow said makes this much less of a concern for Entergy: natural gas.
“In the current climate, natural gas prices are so low that very few people are thinking about building new coal plants,” he said. “Some say the EPA has killed new coal, and to a certain extent that’s true, but natural gas has also killed coal.”
Within a few years, however, Entergy will also have to deal with new regulations on its existing coal plants, four of which are in Arkansas and one in Louisiana.
Earlier this year, President Barack Obama said he wanted the EPA to have a proposal for existing plants by June 2014.
One major difference is that this regulation will likely allow for more control from the state level. This means ideas for the regulation have been flooding in from groups around the country.
Barlow said there’s a “tremendous amount of uncertainty” surrounding this future regulation.
“I think the best way to describe it is these proposals just run the gamut,” Barlow said. “This section of the Clean Air Act is not used very often.”
He does have an idea what Entergy would like to see. For example, it’s possible the regulation will place a cap on how much carbon dioxide Entergy emits per megawatt hour generated, and Barlow said the company is already in good shape there.
The EPA proposal for new plants is 1,000 pounds per megawatt hour, Barlow said.
“Now, if you look at Entergy’s fleet in Arkansas, our fleetwide average is 940 pounds per megawatt hour,” Barlow said. “That was in 2012.”
Basically, as long as the regulation counts Entergy’s entire fleet, its average will already satisfy EPA standards.
“When I think about the president’s above-all policy, he wants fuel diversity and security,” Barlow said. “It makes sense to us to look at the fleetwide average. We’ve got coal plants with big emissions, but nuclear plants with less.”
He said he’d also like for states to have a healthy amount of flexibility.
“This issue differs a lot in different parts of the country,” he said. “Requiring renewable in Colorado may be a great idea. Or in North Dakota with wind, or Arizona with solar. But in the mid-South we don’t have anywhere near those types of renewable resources.”
The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality said that once the EPA “issues its guidance we would tailor our regulations accordingly,” a spokeswoman said.
In the end, it’s likely that Arkansas’ carbon-heavy coal plants are here to stay. But Barlow noted that even if all 50 plants featured in the study were shut down, 98 percent of the world’s carbon emissions would remain.
“You’ve got to put this in context,” he said. “When you talk about shutting down coal, what is that doing? Probably a little bit of good for global climate change. Is there some value there? Yes, but let’s not talk about this like this is the thing that’s going to solve climate change.”