Article: Sways of Power Plant Emissions on Human Health

Power plants use fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, and natural gas, which are finite in supply. These fuels cause a variety of health and environmental problems and are not a long-term solution to energy needs. As these fuels become harder to find, prices will rise and political problems associated with market manipulation from domestic and overseas sources will only increase.

Here are some facts. The U.S. electric utility industry burns more than 1 billion tons of coal annually, with coal-fired generation supplying about 50 percent of the electricity used in the United States. The solids collected from the furnace and removed from the flue gas after the coal is combusted are collectively referred to as coal combustion products (CCPs), and can be broadly categorized as coal ash and Flue Gas Desulfurization (FGD ) solids.

Coal is composed primarily of carbon and hydrogen, but all coal also contains some mineral matter (for example, clays, shales, quartz, and calcite); the percentage varies by coal type and source. Coal ash is the mineral matter that is collected after the coal is combusted, along with some unburned carbon. The amount of coal ash produced at a power plant depends on the volume of coal burned, the amount of mineral matter in the coal, and the combustion conditions. In 2007, US coal-fired power plants produced about 92 million tons of coal ash, including 72 million tons of fly ash, 18 million tons of bottom ash, and 2 million tons of boiler slag.

Figure01

Coal-fired power plants produce electricity for the nation’s power grid, but they also produce more hazardous air emissions than any other industrial pollution sources. The quantity is staggering. Over 386,000 tons of 84 separate hazardous air pollutants spew from over 400 plants in 46 states.  Their emissions threaten the health of people who live near these plants, as well as those who live hundreds of miles away. Despite the concentration of these plants largely in the Midwest and Southeast, their toxic emissions threaten the air in communities nationwide.

The process of burning coal releases chemicals into the atmosphere that threaten not only the air Americans breathe, but the water they drink, the soil they live on and the food they eat. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies many of these chemicals as “hazardous air pollutants” or “air toxics,” a category that means they are known or reasonably expected to harm human health or the environment or both.

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Hazardous air pollutants from coal-fired power plants include:

  • Acid gases, such as hydrogen chloride and hydrogen fluoride;
  • Benzene, toluene and other compounds;
  • Dioxins and furans;
  • Formaldehyde;
  • Lead, arsenic, and other metals;
  • Mercury;
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH); and
  • Radioactive materials, like radium and uranium.

President Barack Obama unveiled on 3 August 2015 the final version of his plan to dramatically cut emissions from US power plants.  He called it a moral obligation and warned that climate change will threaten future generations if left unchecked.  He also said the unprecedented carbon dioxide limits are the “the single most important step” America has ever taken to fight climate change. He cautioned stating that the problem is so large, if the world doesn’t get it right quickly, it may become impossible to reverse, leaving populations unable to adapt.

Following the rejected legislative attempts to reduce pollution from carbon dioxide (CO2) which is a scientific conclusion for heating the Earth, President Obama is enacting the plan by executive order bypassing Congress.

Declaring climate change the greatest threat facing the world, President Obama said Monday the regulation requiring the power sector to cut its emissions by 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030 would reduce Americans’ energy bills and improve the health of vulnerable populations nationwide.

The Clean Power Plan significantly reduces carbon pollution from the electric power sector while advancing clean energy innovation, development, and deployment. It ensures the US will stay on a path of long-term clean energy investments that will maintain the reliability of electric grid, promote affordable and clean energy for all Americans, and continue United States leadership on climate action. The Clean Power Plan:    

  1. Provides Flexibility to States to Choose How to Meet Carbon Standards: EPA’s Clean Power Plan establishes carbon pollution standards for power plants, called carbon dioxide (CO2) emission performance rates. States develop and implement tailored plans to ensure that the power plants in their state meet these standards– either individually, together, or in combination with other measures like improvements in renewable energy and energy efficiency. The final rule provides more flexibility in how state plans can be designed and implemented;
  2. More Time for States Paired with Strong Incentives for Early Deployment of Clean Energy: State plans are due in September of 2016, but states that need more time can make an initial submission and request extensions of up to two years for final plan submission.  The compliance averaging period begins in 2022 instead of 2020, and emission reductions are phased in on a gradual “glide path” to 2030;
  3. Creates Jobs and Saves Money for Families and Businesses: The Clean Power Plan builds on the progress states, cities, and businesses and have been making for years. Since the beginning of 2010, the average cost of a solar electric system has dropped by half and wind is increasingly competitive nationwide. The Clean Power Plan will drive significant new investment in cleaner, more modern and more efficient technologies, creating tens of thousands of jobs. Under the Clean Power Plan, by 2030, renewables will account for 28 percent of the capacity, up from 22 percent in the proposed rule’;
  4. Rewards States for Early Investment in Clean Energy, Focusing on Low-Income Communities: The Clean Power Plan establishes a Clean Energy Incentive Program that will drive additional early deployment of renewable energy and low-income energy efficiency. Under the program, credits for electricity generated from renewables in 2020 and 2021 will be awarded to projects that begin construction after participating states submit their final implementation plans. The program also prioritizes early investment in energy efficiency projects in low-income communities by the Federal government awarding these projects double the number of credits in 2020 and 2021;
  5. Ensures Grid Reliability: The Clean Power Plan contains several important features to ensure grid reliability as cleaner sources of power becomes a reality. In addition to giving states more time to develop implementation plans, starting compliance in 2022, and phasing in the targets over the decade, the rule requires states to address reliability in their state plans. The final rule also provides a “reliability safety valve” to address any reliability challenges that arise on a case-by-case basis;
  6. Continues US Leadership on Climate Change: The Clean Power Plan continues United States leadership on climate change. By driving emission reductions from power plants, the largest source of US greenhouse gas emissions, the Clean Power Plan builds on prior Administration steps to reduce emissions, including historic investments to deploy clean energy technologies, standards to double the fuel economy of the cars and light trucks, and steps to reduce methane pollution. Taken together these measures put the United States on track to achieve the President’s near-term target to reduce emissions in the range of 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, and lay a strong foundation to deliver against the long-term target to reduce emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025;
  7. Sets State Targets in a Way That Is Fair and Is Directly Responsive to Input from States, Utilities, and Stakeholders: In response to input from stakeholders, the final Clean Power Plan modifies the way that state targets are set by using an approach that better reflects the way the electricity grid operates, using updated information about the cost and availability of clean generation technologies, and establishing separate emission performance rates for all coal plants and all gas plants;
  8. Maintains Energy Efficiency as Key Compliance Tool: In addition to on-site efficiency and greater are reliance on low and zero carbon generation, the Clean Power Plan provides states with broad flexibility to design carbon reduction plans that include energy efficiency and other emission reduction strategies;
  9. Requires States to Engage with Vulnerable Populations: The Clean Power Plan includes provisions that require states to meaningfully engage with low-income, minority, and tribal communities, as the states develop their plans. EPA also encourages states to engage with workers and their representatives in the utility and related sectors in developing their state plans; and
  10. Includes a Proposed Federal Implementation Plan: EPA is also releasing a proposed federal plan today. This proposed plan will provide a model states can use in designing their plans, and when finalized, will be a backstop to ensure that the Clean Power Plan standards are met in every state. 

The sad reality is that it didn’t take too long for the opposition to express their concerns about the potential impact of the proposed new standards on economy, predicting it will destroy jobs and hurt economy.  This kind of opposition has always been there regardless whether the president is a Democrat or Republican.  As a matter of fact, the same questions were raised when Republican President Richard Nixon signed the Clean Air Act to combat smog, he talked about the promise of tackling pollution and the responsibility to future generations.  Polluting interests and their allies said new pollution standards would decimate the auto industry. That was false. In 1990, when Republican President George H.W. Bush took steps to stop acid rain, polluting interests and their allies claimed the lights would go out and businesses around the country would suffer. That was false, too.

Here are the major concerns expressed by the opposition:

  • Carbon pollution standards will destroy jobs and hurt economy:  This is not true.  It’s proven that pollution can be reduced and protect the health while creating jobs.  EPA has been protecting air quality for more than 40 years, and in that time and they have cut pollution by 70 percent while the economy has more than tripled.

EPA’s detailed economic analysis shows that this proposal for new standards for power plants will create tens of thousands of jobs all over the country. Additionally, two independent studies show even larger job gains of around 300,000 when the Clean Power Plan is fully implemented. Looking at carbon reduction programs that are already in place, indicate that from 2014-2016, the Regional Green House Gas Initiative trading program, is expected to create 14,000 new jobs across nine states;

  • Carbon pollution standards will hit low-income communities the hardest: This is not true.  EPA’s Clean Power Plan will protect the health of low-income communities and help them save on their energy bills.  Today, African American children are twice as likely to be hospitalized for asthma and Latino children are 40 percent more likely to die from asthma.

The Clean Power Plan will improve public health in these communities and across the country. It will prevent 90,000 asthma attacks in children and avoid 300,000 missed days of school or work per year by 2030. That means less time and money spent at the doctor and more time that kids can spend reaching their full potential.  EPA’s plan will also shrink electricity bills $85 each year for the average household, and save consumers a total of $155 billion from 2020-2030 by increasing energy efficiency and reducing costs in the electricity system.

In addition, the Clean Power Plan establishes a Clean Energy Incentive Program that will drive investment in energy efficiency in low-income communities and help push energy bills even lower. This new program builds on the investment the President made in the first term to retrofit more than a million low-income homes, and the Administration’s efforts to deploy more solar in communities; and

  • This administration is waging a war on coal:  This is not true.  For years, the President’s political opponents have been blaming him for market trends that started well before the President took office.  An independent power market analysis shows that the recent shift away from coal is driven by competition from cheaper natural gas, lower cost renewables, and increased use of energy efficiency.

The President’s FY 2016 budget includes the “POWER+ Plan,” a nearly $10 billion investment in coal communities, workers and technologies, which includes:

  1.  Targeted new resources for economic diversification, job creation, job training and other employment services for workers and communities impacted by layoffs in coal mines and coal-fired power plants;
  2. Unprecedented investments in the health and retirement security of mineworkers and their families and the accelerated clean-up of hazardous coal abandoned mine lands; and
  3. New tax incentives to support continued technology development and deployment of carbon capture, utilization and sequestration technologies.

Moreover, there is a need to understand that the Clean Power Plan is designed with reliability in mind, a fact detractors tend to ignore. The specter of grid failure is a frightening image, one that critics of the new power plant pollution standards have fixated on, but it’s just that: a specter, an illusion not grounded in reality.

Of course, some states are already on track to meet their goals under the Clean Power Plan, as a recent article in the Washington Post noted. The plan’s purpose-built flexibility in meeting those targets is one reason why.  “One state may opt to phase out older coal-burning power plants, while another might seek to expand the use of solar and wind energy. Or a state might add new energy efficiency programs to cut electricity consumption,” the newspaper reports.  There are many roads to the clean energy future, and each state can and will choose the path that best and most reliably meets its needs.

The reality is that environmental progress is too often framed as coming at the expense of something else, such as reliability or economic growth. But these are invariably false dichotomies.  However, when California’s Global Warming Solutions Act was signed into law in 2006, the naysayers who preferred the broken status quo claimed it would hurt the state’s economy. Quite the contrary, California’s economy is, in fact, on a growth spurt.

In 2014, California added 471,200 jobs, and its economy is growing faster than the United States economy as a whole – even as greenhouse gas emissions are declining. Clean-tech jobs in California have grown 10 times faster than jobs in other sectors over the past decade.  And, since 2006, the state has seen clean energy venture capital investments worth $27 billion, more than the other 49 states combined.

The good news is that according to the Clean Air Task Force (CATF) updated report in July 2015, examines the progress towards cleaning up one of the nation’s leading sources of pollution, with a focus on progress in the states in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative states. The report finds that the deaths each year that are attributable to fine particle pollution from US power plants has fallen from 23,600 in 2004 to 7,500 in 2012. The report finds that this drop is due to a combination of pollution regulations, enforcement actions by governments and environmental advocates, policies promoting cleaner energy technology, coal plant retirements, and the displacement of coal generation by natural gas.

Accordingly, it is only reasonable to assume that the announced new standards for power plants may help further reduce the number of deaths that are attributed to fine particle pollution from US power plants which should be another reason to support these standards.

Resources:

  1. Clear Water News Bulletins: Fact Sheet 14;
  2. EPRI – Electric Power Research Institute: Coal Ash – Characteristics, Management, and environmental Issues;
  3. American Lung Association: Toxic Air;
  4. The Whitehouse: Facts Sheet – President Obama to announce Historic Carbon Pollution Standards for Power Plants;
  5. The Whitehouse: The Clean Power Plan – Myths and Facts;
  6. IEDF: The most important thing you can do this year;
  7. The Washington Post: Outrage over EPA emissions regulations fades as states find fixes;
  8. Energy: Lights will stay on with New Power Plant Pollution Rules, Find out why; and
  9. Clean Air Task Force: Publications.