Coal-Fired Plants Adapt to New, Costly EPA Standards

May 5, 2016

Nearly 200 million tons of coal sits stockpiled at power plants nationwide.
Credit ArturNyk (Shutterstock.com)

The Environmental Protection Agency has recently toughened pollution standards for toxic emissions and regulations are likely to increase in the future. The new rules push utilities towards cleaner energy production, but they’re also costly.

Coal-fired power plants in Indiana are balancing federal demands with business pressures in a number of ways.

Some, like Indiana Power and Light’s plant in Indianapolis, are converting to run on natural gas. Others are shutting down, like the plant owned by Duke Energy in Terre Haute. But over half of them are taking a third option — working to make their current process cleaner. One of these is American Electric Power’s Rockport facility near Evansville.

“Rockport power plant is a very large coal fueled power plant,” says Melissa McHenry, spokesperson for AEP. “It has 2 1,300 megawatt units, which is the largest generating units that are built in the United States, some of the largest in the world.”

McHenry says Rockport is also very efficient, meaning it emits less pollution per unit of energy produced than the average coal plant.  

Coal-fired power plants in Indiana
Credit Sierra Club

But because Rockport is so large, it still produces a lot of pollution. All power plants in the US self-report just how much pollution to the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA publishes these numbers as the Toxic Release Inventory, or TRI.

“So, we took a look at the numbers and found that Rockport is, yet again, it’s the number two toxic power plant in Indiana,” says Jodi Perras, who analyzed the latest TRI numbers for the Beyond Coal campaign from the Sierra Club. “It’s in the top ten in the country in terms of the amount of toxic pollution it puts out.”

But making less pollution is expensive. Rockport already spent $600 million and is planning to spend an additional $3 billion to reduce toxic pollution further — which AEP says is actually cheaper than converting it to run on natural gas or closing it down entirely.

But toxic pollution isn’t the only problem. No matter how much equipment is installed, coal-fired power plants will always produce carbon dioxide—lots of it.

Carbon dioxide is a heat-trapping greenhouse gas, it’s contributed more than any other greenhouse gas to anthropogenic climate change.

The Clean Power Plan was proposed by the EPA in 2014 to fix that. It would reduce CO2 emissions by a third, from 2005 levels, by 2030.

“I don’t think anyone thinks we don’t need to regulate CO2 going forward,” says Paul Chodak, president of Indiana-Michigan Power, owned by American Electric Power. “I think the issue is about how fast we get there.”

A lot of states are worried about speed, and some argue the EPA doesn’t even have the authority to regulate carbon. Nearly two dozen states, including Indiana, sued the EPA over the Clean Power Plan. The Supreme Court issued a stay on the plan this past February, putting it on hold.

Indiana carbon dioxide emissions
Credit Sierra Club

But Sierra Club’s Jodi Perras says the stay isn’t necessary because the timeline is achievable.

“So the Clean Power Plan would just require us to keep reducing our CO2 at the rate we’re already on,” Perras says. “What’s so treacherous about that?”

But Indiana-Michigan Power’s Chodak says because utilities are already invested in their coal infrastructure, they need more time to maximize their return while keeping rates low for customers.

“So I always say utilities are aircraft carriers, not speed boats,” Chodak says. “And when we make investments, we need to be thinking 20, 30, 40, 50 years down the line, because that’s how long these assets last.”

The stay for the Clean Power Plan will remain in effect until the lawsuit is decided. The case is currently before the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.