Originally Published Nov. 26, 2016
On Thursday, November 17, 2016, Lee Meadows of the Severn River Association and Sara Via of the University
of Maryland spoke on the impacts of coal-fired power plants. This is a summary of their presentation.
Lee Meadows provided a basic overview of the two, coal-fired, electricity-generation plants in Anne Arundel County: H.A. Wagner Power Plant and Brandon Shores Power Plant. Both are located on the same property on Fort Smallwood Rd in North County on the Patapsco River. Both were operated by Constellation but have been sold to Raven Power Holdings to facilitate Constellation’s merger with Excelon. The first unit opened in 1956 and the most recent unit went online in 1991.
Pollution from these power plants include sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, heavy metals, ground level ozone, fine particulate matter, smog, and haze. Scrubbers have been installed that have reduced pollution emissions in the past 6 years. Sulphur dioxide is down 85%, nitrogen oxides 75% and mercury 90%. Ozone alerts in the area are down 85%.
However, the US EPA has determined that the plants are in a nonattainment condition for sulfur dioxide. The Maryland Department of the Environment disputes the EPA holding, based on alternative measurements allowed in the EPA regulations. Most of AA County has air that is above the EPA maximums for sulfur dioxide. The area around the Severn River and Annapolis is over twice the EPA maximum. Areas around the power plants into Baltimore are 4 to 8 times the EPA maximums.
AA County has higher than average incidents of asthma, lung cancer and kidney cancer. The power plants may account for $1.8 billion in health costs. The US Department of Energy estimates that the health costs attributable to the power plants if internalized would add 41 cents/KWh—the highest health-care cost per KWh in the nation. Electricity prices are currently at about 8-10 cents/KWh. The State of Maryland’s largest budget item is health-care spending.
Benefits of the power plants are economic. The plants provide 360 jobs with a payroll of $20 million. The output capacity of the plants is 1,865 MW. However, the plants do not operate at capacity because coal plants are more expensive to operate than other plants bidding to provide electricity to the PJM grid.
Demand for electricity produced from coal is falling because of the current low cost of natural gas. Maryland’s fraction of coal based generation has remained stable while the national fraction has declined. However, there are currently more natural-gas power plants planned for Maryland. Geothermal, on-shore wind, natural-gas power generation are currently all less expensive than coal-fired power generation. Nuclear is about equal to coal. Photovoltaic solar is a more expensive than coal, but the cost has been dropping. Off-shore wind and concentrated solar are currently significantly more expensive than coal. Federal policies are unlikely to change the relationship between coal and natural gas prices.
There is little future for these coal-fired power plants. The only way for coal-fired power plants to remain economically viable is through subsidies. Forty percent of coal-fired power plants have closed nationally in the past two decades. Three coal-fired power plants are scheduled to close in Maryland by 2018.
Sara Via discussed the health implications of the power plant emissions. The majority of known harmful compounds in the air come from coal stacks. Brandon Shores does have modern pollution control for nitrogen oxides, but until the past couple of years didn’t operate these controls all the time.
The closer to the plants (in general, but affected by the wind) the more exposure to the smog. Those most exposed to the air pollution tend to be urban, low-income, non-white, lower-educated populations.
The fine particles emitted by coal stacks are typically coated with toxins such as heavy metals. These fine particles cause problems in the lungs by both introducing the toxins and by exacerbating asthma. Ozone and fine particles cause bronchial muscles in the lungs to swell closing bronchiole which reduce the ability to breath. This is asthma. Nothing in our biology filters these fine particles so the toxins enter the lungs and then the blood.
The American Lung Association notes that ozone pollution and particle pollution cause premature death, developmental harm, asthma attacks, lung cancer, wheezing and coughing, shortness of breath, cardiovascular harm, susceptibility to infections, and lung tissue redness and swelling. The cost of hospitalizations for asthma is higher in each of Anne Arundel Co, Baltimore City, and Baltimore Co than Los Angeles. Hospitalization rates for asthma in Maryland are highest in Baltimore City, Baltimore Co., Calvert Co, and Somerset Co. By age, infants and toddlers are most affected. These costs of coal-fired power plants are not specifically paid for by those that benefit from the generation. These health costs are externalized costs attributable to the power plants.
Air pollution can be reduced by supporting energy efficiency. When we use less electricity, the dirtiest power plants are closed first. The costs to implement efficiency are frequently less expensive than generating electricity. The ideal situation is to save enough energy so that the coal-fired plants will be closed.
EmPOWER Maryland is a program that funds energy efficiency. The program subsidizes energy-efficient appliances and home-energy audits. EmPOWER was designed to reduce peak and general electricity use by 15%. The peak goal has been met, but general use is down only by 2%. Governor Hogan has expressed opposition to EmPOWER.
EmPOWER is funded by several sources including a small (0.5 cent surcharge per kilowatt-hr)(about $5 per month on the average electric bill). However, those who use EmPOWER programs (including Peak Rewards, which pay electricity consumers for the ability to turn off air conditioners and hot water heaters during times of peak demand) will see a decrease in their total electric bill.
EmPOWER is also funded in part by auction proceeds for carbon allowances under the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). RGGI is a collaboration by nine northeastern states to cap carbon emissions from generating plants. The proceeds from carbon-allowance auctions are returned to the participating state governments.
To reduce air pollution reduce support EmPOWER and RGGI. Also, buy renewable energy and reduce your energy use. Support renewable energy production in your neighborhood. Support the development of offshore wind production.
One good way to reduce the effects of air pollution is to stay inside on bad air days. There are smart phone apps that provide air quality information.
Rob Savillo is a resident of Stoney Beach across Cox Creek from the power plants. He started an environmental committee after learning about sulfur dioxide problems. He encouraged EPA to designate the area as in non-attainment which they have done. He opposes MDE opposition to the designation because MDE’s argument is based on using 30 day averages even though very short term exposure to peak sulfur dioxide levels causes health problems. He is working on increasing monitors as lack of data is a problem.
Colie Young from Citizens Climate Lobby Annapolis discussed the problem of carbon emissions from a national perspective. Colie explained CCL’s goal to put a fee on carbon at the source of fossil fuels and pass the proceeds back to the population in the form of a per capita dividend.