Thursday, December 22, 2011

Coal and mercury

I work for a weekly business newspaper that focuses on West Virginia. For a while, we've been following the EPA mercury rules that were announced Tuesday afternoon. A story by our standout energy reporter Pam Kasey is here. For an Ohio perspective, check out this one from the Akron Beacon-Journal.

The new rule will accelerate the closure schedule of some older, smaller coal-fired power plants. In the case of one along the Ohio River -- Philip Sporn, at about Mile 242, give or take a couple -- the mercury rule means the plant will close by Dec. 31, 2014, according to its owner, American Electric Power. But the plant has been operating at minimal output in recent years anyway, from what I understand.

For what it's worth, AEP announced its accelerated closure schedule back in June. Some companies, such as FirstEnergy, are not talking about their plans.

I don't know how many news stories I've read this year about smaller coal-fired plants begin shut down before the end of this decade. Given ever-stricter environmental regulations and the age of these plants, it's just not cost-effective to retrofit them with scrubbers or other systems to cut down on the nasty stuff that comes out of their stacks.

 In a Wall Street Journal article from March 7, Michael Morris, then the CEO of AEP, explained it this way:

What we've done over the last number of years at American Electric Power is we retrofitted our larger units. Our largest plants are 1,300 megawatts; we have a 250 class, a 500 class, an 800 class and a 1,300-megawatt class. We've retrofitted the 1,300s, so we have gotten better efficiencies there.
But you get to a point where you look out at the timeline left of the station and you say to yourself, "We can't put any more capital to work there." So, when you look at our fleet, if you look at the 500-megawatt class, that's on the border. Anything below that is going to go. It's just going to go in its normal course. That will be affected by legislation, regulation, whatever comes out of the requirements at a state level or a federal level.

So the trickle of articles about smaller coal plants shutting down didn't surprise me any. If there was any surprise, it was that there are so many of them still operating.