Clean coal coming

By Andy McGlashen

What carbon-dioxide regulations for new power plants — and forthcoming regulations for existing plants — mean for greater Lansing. Also, BWL and union investigating August explosion at Eckert Power Station

As some climate activists see it, the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent proposal to begin limiting carbon emissions from new power plants means the Obama administration is finally getting tough on global warming.

To fans of fossil fuels, it’s further evidence Obama wants to pulverize the coal industry.

As for the Lansing Board of Water and Light, the draft regulations don’t mean a heck of a lot. Having recently switched on its $182 million, natural gas-fired REO Town cogeneration plant, BWL has no plans to build new facilities anytime soon, said Stephen Serkaian, spokesman for the utility.

“Short term, the new regulations don’t have an impact on the BWL because they only impact new power plants,” he said.

The same goes for Michigan State University, which in 2012 adopted a long-range plan to shift entirely to renewable energy.

Meanwhile, BWL and other utilities are anxiously waiting — and lawyers are licking their chops — for June 2014, when the EPA will announce draft rules for existing power plants.

“That’s when the real important and controversial stuff will occur,” said Douglas Jester, a local consultant with 5 Lakes Energy.

Serkaian said it’s unclear what the regulations for existing plants will mean for BWL and its customers, but the utility’s recent moves should soften the impact. Already it has lopped 350,000 tons off its annual coal consumption by replacing the Moore’s Park Steam Plant and half the generators at the Eckert Power Station with the gas-fired REO Town plant. BWL also recently announced it will purchase wind power generated in Gratiot County.

MSU has ramped up the amount of natural gas and biofuel burned in its T.B. Simon power plant, leading to a 28 percent reduction in coal use since 2006.

Still, adjusting to the forthcoming EPA rules, whatever form they might take, won’t be a cakewalk.

“No one disagrees that we need cleaner air and cleaner facilities,” Serkaian said. “The question is how to get there with existing plants. You can’t just figuratively flip a switch and convert from coal to natural gas or from coal to alternative energy or from coal to a cleaner burning process, without either completely turning off those plants or spending billions of dollars.”

Jester said it appears the rules for existing plants will set performance standards for each state. Those standards could take the form of required reductions in statewide greenhouse gas emissions from power plants or caps on how much carbon dioxide plants can emit per unit of energy produced.

The latter is the form the EPA chose for regulating new power plants.

The proposal restricts coal plants to 1,100 pounds of carbon dioxide emitted per megawatt-hour of electricity produced.

Even advanced coal-burning facilities emit about 1,800 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour, so the regulations would in effect require new coal plants to

include carbon capture and storage technologies that remain largely unproven.

Blocking new coal plants is an important move for the environment, said Brad Van Guilder, an organizing representative with the Sierra Club.

“It’s good they’re getting serious about this,” he said. “Given what we need to address, we need to set a very high standard and make our greenhouse gas reductions very quickly.”

Van Guilder said he has concerns, however, about the proposed rules for gas plants. On average, natural-gas plants emit 1,135 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour, which is about half of coal, according to the EPA. The rules would allow large facilities like the REO Town plant to emit 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour.

That’s a breeze, he said, since gas plants typically emit around 800 to 850 pounds per megawatt-hour.

Jester also said the cushy cap on gas-plant emissions had him scratching his head.

“I’m still puzzled about the generous limits on natural-gas plants, and why it doesn’t at least require gas plants to be as efficient as the best technology currently available,” he said.

Jester and Van Guilder both said they detected a certain irony in the response to the new proposal from coal-state politicians and industry lobbyists. The fossil-fuel industry has previously painted carbon capture in rosy terms as part of a “clean-coal” future.

“It is ironic that, now that the EPA has proposed rules that would require coal to be approximately as clean as natural gas, their response is they couldn’t possibly do it,” Jester said. “They’ve invested a lot of money in the past five or six years trying to tell us all how clean coal can be.”

Explosion investigation

The head of a local union representing workers at Lansing Board of Water and Light power plants says he has serious concerns about two explosions on Aug. 25 at the Eckert Power Station.

Ron Byrnes, business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 352, told City Pulse he voiced his concerns about the explosions at the Sept. 24 meeting of BWL’s commissioners.

Byrnes said he told the commissioners they were “being led to believe some things that may or may not be true.”

No one was injured in the two explosions, which were related to the same incident and happened almost simultaneously, Byrnes said. The union and BWL are working together on an investigation.

Byrnes also told commissioners “they need to take note of that investigation and be interested in the investigation,” he said. “Not only is it a major financial impact to the utility, it also put employees in jeopardy for their safety. The safety is paramount in my mind.”

He added that the financial impact he referred to was the result of damage to the plant.

BWL spokesman Stephen Serkaian declined to discuss the incident until the investigation is complete.

The Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigates workplace incidents that cause death or serious injury, but is not investigating the incident at Eckert, spokeswoman Andrea Miller said in an email.