Scrubbing out pollution
Company's changes part of bigger picture for utilities since 1990
FirstEnergy spends $1.8 billion on new system at power plant on Ohio River to help improve air quality, follow federal rules
By Bob Downing
Beacon Journal staff writer
Published on Sunday, Mar 27, 2011
STRATTON: After decades of dramatic improvement in the air around FirstEnergy Corp.'s coal-burning plants, the company has taken one more giant step toward reducing pollution.
A $1.8 billion scrubber system on seven boilers at FirstEnergy's Sammis Power Plant on the Ohio River quietly began operations Dec. 31.
Once among the dirtiest coal-burning power plants in the United States, Sammis will experience a 95 percent reduction in sulfur dioxide emissions and 64 percent reduction in nitrogen oxide, unhealthy pollutants that play a role in acid rain, soot and smog.
Five years in the making, the new system will improve air quality in eastern Ohio and downwind through Pennsylvania, West Virginia's Panhandle and as far away as the East Coast.
The improvements at Sammis are part of a bigger, little-publicized greening of coal-burning plants owned by FirstEnergy and other American utilities over the past 20 years.
FirstEnergy alone with 23 boilers at six coal-fired plants in Ohio and Pennsylvania that are owned and operated by subsidiary FirstEnergy Generating Corp. cut sulfur dioxide emissions from 1.3 billion pounds in 1990 to 320 million pounds in 2009, a drop of 75 percent.
Nitrogen oxide emissions declined from 487 million pounds to 65 million pounds, a drop of 87 percent.
According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency figures, the Akron company surpassed the nationwide sulfur dioxide reductions of 64 percent and nitrogen oxide cuts of 30 percent over the same period.
FirstEnergy says that since
1970, it has spent more than $7 billion on environmental improvements.
''We're not surprised by the numbers,'' said Charles D. Lasky, vice president of fossil fleet operations for FirstEnergy Generation Corp. ''But we're proud of our accomplishment, proud of what we've achieved. We've come a long way and we've made a lot of improvements. . . . What we've done is a very positive story.''
Coal critics persist
In 1990, Ohio was the No. 1 source of power-plant pollution. Its coal-fired plants produced 2.2 million tons of sulfur dioxide and 500,000 tons of nitrogen oxide, the highest total in the United States.
Environmentalists today attribute the cleaner air in Ohio and nationally to pressure at the federal level, particularly acid emissions regulations added to the Clean Air Act in 1990.
FirstEnergy's pollution reductions are ''big numbers and graphic evidence that the [federal] Clean Air Act is working to improve the quality of air that we breathe in dramatic ways,'' said Frank O'Donnell of the Clean Air Trust, a national environmental-health group in Washington, D.C. ''There is no doubt that the Clean Air Act is making a big difference.''
FirstEnergy dealt with emissions from its coal-fired power plants when it ''was pushed to do so . . . and breathers are happy with what the company has done,'' he said. ''But it's a little early to celebrate too much.''
Environmentalists say that FirstEnergy's pollution from burning coal is still a concern and a threat to health because of the magnitude of the remaining emissions.
A 2010 report by the Boston-based Clean Air Task Force says pollution from coal-burning power plants across the country was responsible for 13,000 premature deaths in 2010, in addition to 10,000 hospitalizations and 20,000 heart attacks, said David Celebrezze of the Ohio Environmental Council.
Ohio was No. 2 for health problems traced to power-plant pollution, behind only Pennsylvania, that report said.
The data are proof that more needs to be done to clean America's coal-burning power plants, Celebrezze said.
More reductions, costs
What more FirstEnergy will do to cut air pollution will depend largely on new mandates from Congress and the federal EPA, Lasky said.
New regulations for mercury, other heavy metals, acid gases and perhaps carbon dioxide loom ahead.
Power plants produce about 40 percent of the mercury emissions in the United States. Mercury drops out of the air and accumulates in rivers and streams and is stored in the tissue of fish. It can cause serious developmental or neurological problems if consumed by humans.
FirstEnergy has cut emissions 74 percent from 4,030 pounds in 1990 to 1,040 pounds in 2009, but that may not be enough.
The U.S. EPA tried once to limit mercury emissions, but was blocked by a federal appeals court in 2008. It will try again this year.
On March 16, the EPA outlined limits on mercury, other heavy metals and acid gases from coal-fired power plants, to be finalized by November and implemented within four years.
The cost to residential customers could be as much as $4 a month as companies are required to cut emissions at all plants and may be required to further improve plants such as Sammis or perhaps close smaller facilities to cut emissions, according to FirstEnergy spokesman Mark Durbin.
And while FirstEnergy has reduced its carbon dioxide output 32 percent to 73 billion pounds in 2009 and soot output nearly 60 percent to 11 million pounds, that also may not be enough.
There are no regulations on carbon dioxide, a key global warming gas. Congress is weighing proposals that would make carbon dioxide a regulated pollutant for the first time.
A significant factor in recent pollution reductions may be a temporary one: The deep recession that began in 2008. First-Energy's electric production declined 20 percent from 2008 into 2009. As a result of reduced demand, the company will shut down two coal-fired plants in the next several months and two others will be used only during peak demand.
Because of its diversity, First-Energy can rely more heavily on its cleaner sources. The company gets 37 percent of its power from nonpolluting facilities, including its four nuclear units, wind and pumped storage, and 9 percent from natural gas, which is significantly cleaner than coal. Gas is used largely at three company-owned peaking facilities.
Nonetheless, there has been improvement in coal plants that is clearly measurable.
One way of showing that is the amount of pollution per megawatt hour. A megawatt is enough power to provide electricity for about 600 houses.
To power those homes, the company reduced its sulfur dioxide emissions from 18.3 pounds per megawatt hour in 1990 to 4.86 pounds in 2009, a drop of 73 percent.
Nitrogen oxide emissions declined from 6.83 pounds per megawatt hour in 1990 to 1 pound per megawatt hour in 2009, a drop of 85 percent.
Scrubbers were a part of the solution.
Before the recent addition to Sammis, scrubbers already were in place at the company's other major coal-fired plant, D. Bruce Mansfield at Shippingport, Pa.
But there have been other factors.
The company closedor divested itself of many of its older, less efficient plants. The utility had 52 coal-fired boilers of varying sizes in 1990. It was down to 25 in 2009.
The company also purchased an interest in a low-sulfur Montana coal mine, to blend its coal with high-sulfur, poorer quality eastern coal. It has also relied heavily on cleaner Powder River Basin coal from Wyoming.
Also, installation of super critical boilers, which burn hotter and under pressure, increased the efficiency of several units.
With the newly completed merger with Allegheny Energy, FirstEnergy will be in good shape on the environmental front, Lasky said.
About 83 percent of the electricity generated by the merged utility about 100 million megawatt hours annually will be clean from nuclear plants, super-critical coal with scrubbers and other anti-pollution equipment, natural gas, hydro, wind and solar, he said.
Allegheny provided 10 coal-fired plants, seven natural gas-oil facilities and eight hydro plants to the new FirstEnergy.
''We've got a very good set of assets,'' Lasky said. ''We're in a good place for producing clean energy moving forward.''
Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or firstname.lastname@example.org.