Bob Downing

FirstEnergy Corp. on Thursday announced it is retiring six coal-fired power plants, including four in Ohio, because of stricter federal anti-pollution rules.


The six older and dirtier plants will be closed by Sept. 1.


“It was a tough decision,” said Charles D. Lasky, vice president of fossil fleet operations for FirstEnergy Generation Corp.


The announcement makes FirstEnergy one of the first American utilities to close aging, polluting power plants in the wake of tighter federal clean-air rules finalized last month. Closings at other utilities are expected in the coming weeks.


FirstEnergy had been keeping a close eye on proposed federal rules on mercury, heavy metals and air toxics from coal-burning power plants for years, Lasky said.


The new rules provided FirstEnergy with “sufficient certainty” to proceed with the closings, he said.


The federal mandate that improvements be completed within three years was a factor in the decision to retire the six plants, which represent 12 percent of the utility’s generation capacity, he said.


The decision affects 529 workers who will be eligible for severance benefits, the Akron-based utility said.


It indicated that the number of affected workers might be less because some might be considered for other openings within the company and because of a new retirement benefit being offered to workers 55 and older.


About one-third of those 529 workers are eligible for retirement; meanwhile, the utility has about 100 openings in its fossil fuel division, officials said.


The plants to be closed are:


•?Bay Shore Plant, Boilers 2-4, in Oregon, Ohio, outside Toledo. One boiler with anti-pollution equipment will remain open.


•?Eastlake Plant with five boilers, Eastlake.


•?Ashtabula Plant, Ashtabula.


•?Lake Shore Plant, Cleveland.


•?Armstrong Power Station, Adrian, Pa.


•?R. Paul Smith Power Station, Williamsport, Md.


The Eastlake plant is the largest, capable of producing 1,233 megawatts; the Williamsport plant is the smallest at 116 megawatts. One megawatt is enough to fuel 600 to 1,000 houses.


The average age of the six plants is 55 years, Lasky said. The oldest plant, the Maryland facility, was built in 1947; the newest, Eastlake Unit 5, was built in 1972, he said.


The Eastlake plant is still running while the five other plants had been mothballed but were available for winter/summer use when needed, the company said.


Reducing emissions


The closings were triggered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s new Mercury and Air Toxic Standards (MATS), which were finalized Dec. 21.


Reducing emissions of mercury, heavy metals and air toxics from coal-burning power plants is needed to protect human health, the EPA said.


Installing anti-pollution equipment on small, old power plants was not economically feasible, FirstEnergy concluded.


Lasky declined to say how much it would have cost FirstEnergy to equip the plants with bag houses, activated carbon filters and lime or sorbent injection systems to meet the new federal rules.


Closing the six plants will be almost comparable to losing the D. Bruce Mansfield Power Station in Shippingport, Pa. It is FirstEnergy’s largest coal-fired power plant and produces 2,460 megawatts, enough electricity to power 1.5 million homes.


On average, the plants have generated 10 percent of the electricity produced by the company over the last three years, FirstEnergy said.


FirstEnergy saw no advantage to waiting to see whether legal challenges might overturn the new rules, said Ray Evans, executive director of environmental for FirstEnergy Services.


In some cases, there is not enough land around the old plants to install anti-pollution equipment, he said.


The closings are still subject to review by PJM Interconnection, the regional transmission organization that oversees power in the area where the plants are located.


Improvements elsewhere


The utility is expecting to spend between $2 billion and $3 billion on improvements to its remaining coal-fired plants to meet the federal rules. The utility is getting ready for a “deeper dive into those numbers,” Evans said.


The utility expects some minor improvements will be needed at the W.H. Sammis Power Plant in Stratton, Ohio, where a $1.8 billion scrubber system was completed in late 2010. More work probably will be needed to bring the Mansfield plant into compliance, Evans said.


FirstEnergy is still determining what steps will be needed at each plant.


It has 16 coal-fired power plants in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia. Coal produces about 70 percent of the utility’s electricity.


Environmentalists hailed FirstEnergy’s decision.


“Above all, this is a win for public health and for families who have been breathing polluted air from these outdated plants,” said Bruce Nilles of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.


The closings, especially of the Lake Shore plant and Bay Shore plants, will help protect Lake Erie from temperature changes and fish kills, said Henry Henderson of the Natural Resources Defense Council.


Columbus-based American Electric Power has already said it intends to close all or part of 11 power plants and eliminate 600 jobs because of the new federal rules. That includes three Ohio power plants.


Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or bdowning@thebeaconjournal.com.