How New EPA Rules For Power Plants Affect Cooling Tower Maintenance – Part 1
In addition to the many great reasons for maintaining your cooling towers that we’ve been blogging about, now there’s another reason — and an industry-specific one at that — looming on our cultural horizon. We’re talking about the advent of new EPA legislation that affects the operation of America’s power plants. Cooling towers have always played a crucial role in America’s power industry. Now their significance, and therefore the importance of making sure they’re in tip-top shape, has just received the equivalent of a steroid injection from the federal government.
Or rather, this is about to happen. It hasn’t happened yet. And as announced by the EPA in mid-June, it won’t happen quite on schedule. The reason for the delay is a story of much dithering and debate. We’ll relate the story to you first, and then return to the cooling tower focus.
Brace for a twisty tale…
Last December the EPA issued a plan to establish standards for greenhouse gas pollution (GHG) in 2011 under the 40-year-old Clean Air Act. As it stated in a press release, “The agency looked at a number of sectors and is moving forward on GHG standards for fossil fuel power plants and petroleum refineries — two of the largest industrial sources, representing nearly 40 percent of the GHG pollution in the United States.” The plan called for the EPA to propose standards for power plants in July 2011 and refineries in December 2011, and to issue the final standards in May and November of 2012, respectively. Not incidentally, the whole thing came in response to the EPA’s being sued by several states, municipalities, and environmental organizations for failing to update the pollution standards for these two sectors.
Rather predictably in our debate-and-gridlock prone culture, the EPA’s announcement set off a political firestorm, with critics claiming the new standards will result in lost jobs, lost money, and lost power. All the way back in January, less than two weeks after the initial announcement, NPR reported that even though the EPA’s new emission rules on power plants will “only apply to new construction and major expansions. . . they’ve become hugely controversial. Critics say they will drag down the economic recovery” (“EPA to Enforce New Emission Rules on Power Plants,” January 3).
In March the EPA released what it called the “first ever” national standards for harmful emissions from power plants, targeting the release of mercury and other toxins at plants that burn coal (see “EPA proposes ‘first ever’ emissions standards for power plants,” The Washington Post, March 16). The Financial Times promptly reported that
Industry executives and analysts expect that, rather than fitting equipment to bring pollution within the EPA’s limits, many of the operators of the 525 power plants that will be affected will choose to close some or all of their units.
If the EPA imposes even relatively light controls on CO2 emissions, the combined effect could to cause a fifth of US coal-fired generation capacity could close in the coming decade, according to Wood Mackenzie, the consultancy. (“EPA to Limit Power Plants’ Toxic Emissions,” March 17)
In line with this rhetorical momentum, in June 8 utility giant American Electric Power (AEP) announced that compliance with the pending new regulations would force them to shut down five coal-fired power plants — three in West Virginia, one in Virginia, and one in Ohio – and also to cut 600 jobs and spend $6 billion to $8 billion. Company chairman and CEO Michael G. Morris didn’t hesitate to play on fears of economic doom, and told the media that “The sudden increase in electricity rates and impacts on state economies will be significant at a time when people and states are still struggling” (“AEP: New rules would lead to shutdowns, job cuts,” Bloomberg Business Week, June 9). The Congressional newspaper The Hill pointed out the situation’s political ramifications, saying that AEP’s “dramatic plan to comply with the regulations could give Republicans and moderate Democrats ammunition in their ongoing fight against EPA’s efforts to impose new regulations aimed at limiting greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants including mercury and arsenic.” They also quoted Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who slammed the proposed rules as “a perfect example of the EPA implementing rules and regulations without considering the devastating impact they may have on local economies and jobs” (“Utility giant AEP says it will close five coal plants to comply with EPA regs,” The Hill, June 9).
Naturally, the EPA responded by expressing a completely different opinion. Spokesman Roy Seneca issued a statement in which he touted the health and environmental benefits of the semi-proposed new rules: “These long-overdue Clean Air Act standards will slash hazardous emissions of mercury and other acid gases, preventing thousands of asthma and heart attacks and premature deaths.” He also pointed out that the utilities industry has known for decades that such standards are coming, and that implementing various new and cleaner technologies will inevitably create new jobs (“EPA spokesman defends air rules,” Parkersburg News and Sentinel, June 14).
Are you catching a whiff of political theater and imminent gridlock? If so, then your nose is working correctly, for in response to this “intense opposition from Congressional Republicans and industry” the EPA announced on June 13 that, yes, it will push back the deadline for proposing the formal power plant regulations by two months, moving it from July to September, although in the same statement they assured us that this won’t delay their issuing the final standards next May (“EPA delays rule on power plant emissions,” The New York Times, June 14). EPA spokeswoman Cathy Milbourn said in a formal statement, “A wide range of stakeholders has presented the agency with important input which deserves to be fully considered as the agency works to develop smart, cost-effective and protective standards” (“EPA Delays Greenhouse Gas Rules for Power Plants,” The Wall Street Journal, June 13).
So, after all of that, what’s the upshot? For life at large in the U.S., the moral is “here we sit,” still waiting to see how it will all pan out. For those of us with an interest and stake in commercial and industrial cleaning and maintenance, the significance it a bit more acute.
Check out part 2 of this story, where we “connect the dots” between these looming changes to EPA rules and our industry.
Goodway Blogging Team
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