Taking a Stand

Issue 4 and Volume 103.

When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued its 22-state SIP call (state implementation plan) in late 1997, indirectly calling for power plant NOx reductions of up to 85 percent below 1990 levels, various groups, including a coalition of Midwestern governors, voiced their opposition, proposing alternative strategies that would achieve significant NOx reductions at much lower cost. In what may be a momentous decision, the state of Ohio has endorsed one of these plans in defiance of the EPA mandate. This past December, the Ohio EPA announced that the state will challenge the federal strategy by creating a plan to reduce NOx emissions by only 65 percent.

Ohio and several other Midwestern states are not convinced the federal plan will have a significant impact on eastern smog, and worry that implementation will cause irreparable economic damage via job loss and reduced industrial activity. With a September 1999 deadline looming for the new SIPs, Ohio toes a dangerous line. If the state fails to adhere to the federal mandate, the U.S. EPA can step in and implement its own plan. It is hard to believe that Ohio has left itself without any “exit strategy” that would reinstate the original federal mandate, but their defiance demonstrates the newfound confidence by private and public institutions in challenging government actions (to wit, the ongoing legal dispute over the government`s refusal to accept spent nuclear fuel).

Hanging in the balance over the Ohio decision are short and long-term power plant NOx control strategies. Depending on regulatory conditions and implementation schedules, a utility`s emission control strategy may change, for example, from widespread selective catalytic reduction to an aggressive combination of selective non-catalytic reduction (SNCR), low-NOx burners and combustion optimization. AEP and Cinergy are testing SNCR technology at the Cardinal and Miami Fort stations, respectively, to assess its effectiveness at large scale on units fired with Midwestern coal. Although these projects are not directly impacted by the Ohio EPA decision, the results from Cardinal and Miami Fort will have different NOx control planning implications if a 65 percent reduction is mandated rather than an 85 percent reduction.

In another brewing conflict, power plant developers in Massachusetts are speaking out against the state Department of Environmental Protection`s (DEP) decision to stop issuing building permits to plants that use ammonia for NOx control. The Department contends that it is looking out for the well-being of the people who live near the proposed power plants. Developers maintain that DEP`s suggested technology, the ammonia-free catalytic SCONOx system, has insufficient application experience to warrant its mandated use in new power plants. ABB, which recently licensed SCONOx from its developer, Goal Line Environmental Technologies, admits that the technology has only been tested on a smaller scale, around 25 MW, and won`t be ready for use on large plants such as those currently being developed in the Northeast until late 1999.

The debate has already stalled development of two 580 MW plants proposed for Massachusetts` Blackstone Valley by American National Power. The plants have secured all of the necessary state and local approvals except the air permit. ANP officials are concerned that bank financing may be withheld if the state requires the use of a technology that may not be needed and has not been adequately tested.

The Northeast Energy and Commerce Association has also raised concerns about DEP`s ammonia policy, posing several key questions: What data indicate that ambient ammonia concentrations are sufficiently hazardous to warrant a BACT (best available control technology) level of zero? Does ammonia slip from combined-cycle power plants in Massachusetts represent a significant fraction of total state ammonia emissions? Does the use of dilute (20 percent) ammonia solutions in modern SCR systems pose a credible storage safety risk? The responses to these questions bear heavily on investment decisions surrounding the 7,000 MW of new capacity under development in Massachusetts.

There is more at stake here than the selection of SNCR over SCR or SCONOx. In discussing the EPA`s SIP call, AEP`s James Markowsky, executive vice president for power generation, said, “We`re getting close to the time when EPA will be determining this country`s energy policy by fiat.” Strong words, but words that express the opinion of many who believe policy decisions are increasingly being made in a technical and economic vacuum.