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Source: The Buffalo News

Syracuse University study outlines costs, benefits of proposed power plant pollution rules


Posted: May 4, 2015
Originally Published: May 4, 2015

The lives of nearly 200 New Yorkers would be spared every year if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency follows through with regulations that dramatically reduce the toxic by-products spewed into the air by the nation’s power plants.

That’s among the findings of a first-of-its-kind paper published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change.

“We’re hoping it is going to change the conversation,” Charles T. Driscoll of Syracuse University told The Buffalo News.

Driscoll, an environmental engineering professor, teamed with researchers from the School of Public Health at Harvard University to study scenarios to reduce carbon pollution from the nation’s power plants.

They found that thousands of lives across the country hang in the balance when the EPA releases its final Clean Power Plan for the nation, which is expected later this summer.

“Ours is the first analysis to quantify this,” Driscoll said. “We’re trying to focus the conversation on something people can relate to.”

The EPA is weighing alternatives for reducing carbon emissions from power plants in an effort to improve air quality and reduce greenhouse gases that are suspected of leading to both climate change and human illness.

Local environmental groups hadn’t yet reviewed the findings of the study. Its publication was embargoed until Monday. But environmental groups called plans to reduce carbon-related discharges into the air, like the EPA’s plan to clean up power plants, a positive step.

“It’s the biggest and most meaningful step forward we’ve taken as a nation to address climate change,” Brian Smith of the Citizen’s Campaign for the Environment said of the EPA’s move. “When the public recognizes this action will indeed save the lives of thousands and thousands of Americans every year – that’s compelling.”

Power companies like NRG Energy, however, say the proposed federal plan imposes too many rules too fast.

In a 12-page position paper on the EPA proposal, NRG Energy said “dramatic early emission reduction requirements … should be expected to render large numbers of coal plants uneconomic.”

That will lead to quick retirements, “adequacy risks, high power prices and the rapid deployment of large numbers of new natural gas combined-cycle power plants,” according to the position paper.

“Careful analysis of the rule shows that it provides significant flexibility for how states can achieve the required carbon dioxide reductions, but little flexibility on when to achieve them,” the NRG paper stated.

Costs and benefits

Driscoll’s research began before the EPA last summer proposed changes to reduce carbon pollution from the nation’s power plants. The academic study provides three scenarios on how to deal with the issue quicker and also forecasts possible outcomes.

The scenarios include:

• Retrofit existing coal-fired plants with equipment to meet reduced emissions rate standards, which might slightly exacerbate carbon loads with “rebound pollution” if plants are allowed to ramp up operating capacities. That could lead to slightly more pollution-related deaths, about 10 a year nationally.

• Promote energy efficiency in power plants through a range of options, including performance standards, emissions-rate targets and state-by-state cuts to carbon emissions. It forecasts a nearly 36 percent decrease in carbon dioxide emissions from its 2005 level and the savings of about 3,500 premature deaths.

• Implement a strict policy of reductions in pollution from power plants by imposing a national “carbon tax.” Carbon emissions would be halved from their 2005 levels, according to estimates, while averting nearly 3,000 annual deaths. It would likely increase the price of electricity.

Unlike the EPA’s 30 percent reduction in carbon by 2030, Driscoll’s paper targets a 35 percent reduction 10 years earlier.

Which does Driscoll recommend?

“I’m an academic, not a politician,” Driscoll said. “I don’t have a dog in this fight.”

Power plant pollution

The U.S. ranks second to China in polluting the world’s air, according to international energy statistics published by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

In 2012 – the last year data was available – the U.S. emitted 5.3 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide.

China, meanwhile, contributed 8.1 billion metric tons, which accounted for more than a quarter of all the world’s carbon.

The U.S. leads, however, on a per capita basis, and demand for electricity has grown in this country over the last 25 years.

The electric power sector accounts for about one-third of greenhouse gas emissions, with fossil fuel-fired power plants contributing the most carbon dioxide to the nation’s air, according to the EPA.

The agency’s Climate Action Plan calls for a 30 percent cut in carbon emissions from power plants over the next 15 years – an equivalent to the annual emissions of more than 150 million cars, according to agency data. Much of that cut would occur by 2020.

Federal environmental officials reviewed thousands of public comments as they prepare to finalize the plan.

“If EPA sets strong carbon standards, we can expect large public health benefits from cleaner air almost immediately after the standards are implemented,” said Jonathan Buonocore, a research fellow at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who co-authored the paper with Driscoll.

Local benefit

The Empire State stands in good stead under either the Driscoll-Buonocore paper or EPA plans.

There are three coal-fired power plants in the Buffalo-Niagara region. NRG has two plants, Huntley Station in the Town of Tonawanda and a plant in Dunkirk. Somerset Operating Co. runs a plant on the shore of Lake Ontario in Niagara County. They are already running reduced operating loads and must meet more stringent New York State air quality standards.

“We’re very well-positioned to implement the Clean Power Plant initiative,” said Smith, a director at the Citizen’s Campaign for the Environment. “Now, it’s going to make sure everyone is playing by the same rules.”

According to estimates from Driscoll’s paper, 1,900 lives could be saved between 2020 and 2030 – along with 450 fewer hospital visits and 110 fewer heart attacks in New York alone – by implementing carbon standards at power plants in the U.S.

“New York is the big winner in this,” Driscoll said, explaining that most of the dirtier fossil-fueled electrical energy plants are outside the state.

But air pollution from plants in Ohio don’t respect political boundaries.

“New York is immediately downwind of the Ohio Valley,” Driscoll said.

Carbon pollution has long been on the radar of environmental groups which link the increased use of carbon dioxide with a changing climate. The gas rises into the upper atmosphere and stalls, creating what scientists call “a greenhouse effect.” That traps the sun’s heat inside close to the earth’s surface.

One of the factors not considered in the paper or the EPA’s power plant plan is the effect of released methane gas – like from natural gas wells – on global warming. But Driscoll expects that to be the subject of a follow-up paper.