By Robynn Andracsek, P.E., Burns & McDonnell and contributing editor
As an air quality environmental engineer working with the utility industry for the last 20 years, I have two firm convictions. First, a successful and healthy society needs both reliable electricity and clean air. Second, we can simultaneously achieve both of these elements.
Increased air pollution is linked to significant decreases in life expectancy. Additionally, a positive correlation exists between electricity consumption per capita and life expectancy at birth. Some of the worst air pollution in the world occurs in developing nations due to uncontrolled combustion as well as from indoor air issues due to the use of wood and dung as cooking fuels. Therefore, I submit to you several observations to help you protect the phenomenal air quality we enjoy in the United States while supporting the utilities who provide Americans with some of the most reliable and cost-effective electricity in the world.
- Understand Governmental Inertia
Stopping a regulation before it is fully implemented is relatively easy; no one is betting that the Clean Power Plan (CPP) will be implemented on existing utilities. The CPP will likely never be implemented since the Supreme Court stayed it in February 2016. However, existing regulations which have already survived numerous court challenges are a different matter entirely. For eight years, the Clinton EPA initiated a policy reinterpretation in order to shift “routine maintenance” activities into projects that required major New Source Review (NSR) construction permits with add-on control devices. The eight years of the Bush EPA attempted to both rollback this reinterpretation as well as provide clarification on the definition of “routine” and provide exemptions for Pollution Control Projects. The eight years of the Obama EPA rolled back the NSR reform of the Bush EPA. This seesaw effect on regulations played out over years of court challenges and appeals, some of which reached the Supreme Court. The lesson to learn is that no single administration can drastically change established environmental policies, at least not without an act of Congress. This is due in no small part to the portion of the Clean Air Act which allows for average citizens and environmental interest groups to file suit forcing EPA to act.
- Learn from the Previous Successes of Market-Based Environmental Policy
EPA’s Acid Rain Program is an unparalleled success, incentivizing the reduction of air pollution while increasing power production. Likewise, the current drop in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions correlates directly to the decrease in the cost of natural gas versus coal. U.S. power producers are cost-savvy, experienced and understand their customers wants and needs. Utilize their knowledge base and challenge them to creatively balance our air quality and energy generation issues. Many programs have been so successful that controls have reached the point of diminishing returns (for example baghouses). Find the new low hanging fruit where addition of controls can have a substantial impact on pollution reduction.
- Provide Regulatory Clarity for Utilities
The lead time for a new power plant ranges from 2 to 10+ years depending on the facility’s type (natural gas-fired reciprocating engine, simple- or combined-cycle turbine, coal-fired boiler or nuclear power plant). When beginning to plan a new power plant project, a utility needs to understand the environmental regulations that will be in place at the start its operation. Additionally, utilities are beholden to many masters, such as the regional transport authority, possibly a public service commission, local non-governmental Organizations (NGOs) and the changing demand growth of their customers. The last thing any utility needs is legal uncertainty regarding environmental regulation. (For more information, look no further than the tug-of-war between CAIR and CSAPR and between CAMR and MATS.) One place to start would be to define “routine maintenance” in an amendment to the Clean Air Act.
Reach out to utilities as well as to NGOs in order to understand what has worked and where improvements can be made. Force compromise between these disparate groups. In the long run, an imperfect regulation provides more certainty to the power generation community than four years of regulatory limbo. Above all, like a good physician, first do no harm.