Coal / Duke Energy / Energy

What’s the problem with Duke Energy’s Ohio River Valley coal plants?

Duke Energy's Beckjord coal plant, New Richmond, Ohio. photo courtesy of Brett Ciccotelli

Our nation is in the midst of a transition away from dependence on coal-fired electricity. Markets are shifting as coal is replaced by natural gas, as the country moves away from the deplorable practice of mountaintop removal coal mining, as states adopt standards for energy efficiency and renewable energy, and as the “endless supply” of coal seems to be much less than previously thought. Ohio can play a pivotal role in accelerating the shift away from our dirtiest form of energy. Ohio has more installed coal-fired generating capacity than any state in the nation, including 18 plants that have over 200 megawatt capacity.

The oldest, dirtiest parts of Duke Energy’s Miami Fort and Beckjord coal plants do not have modern pollution controls and should be phased out. The Miami Fort coal plant is in North Bend, Ohio, on Hamilton county’s far west side, near the Indiana border. Miami Fort coal plant has three coal-fired boilers  – units 6, 7 and 8. Unit 6 came online at the Miami Fort plant in 1960 and does not have modern pollution controls. Miami Fort’s units 7 and 8, which came online in 1975 and 1978 respectively, have modern pollution controls. The Beckjord coal plant is about 20 miles east of downtown Cincinnati in New Richmond, Ohio. Beckjord has six coal-fired units, which came online between 1952 and 1969. None of Beckjord’s units have the modern control technology a newer coal plant would be required to install.

Duke Energy's Miami Fort coal plant, North Bend, Ohio.

“Apples to apples” comparison: these coal units without pollution controls are very dirty

One way to compare different parts of coal plants (many coal plants have more than one boiler unit) is to compare the amount of pollution per megawatt produced.

Duke Energy’s oldest and dirtiest coal plants in Southwest Ohio

2009 air pollution numbers Source: Duke Energy
Coal Plant Air pollution Megawatts produced Pounds of pollution per megawatt
Beckjord 112,675,807 1124 100,245
Miami Fort 6 43,130,000 163 264,601
Miami Fort 7 8,994,620 557 16,145
Miami Fort 8 9,001,760 557 16,141
Total air pollution 155,805,807
Beckjord has six units without modern pollution controls.
Miami Fort unit 6 without modern pollution controls.
Miami Fort units 7 and 8 have modern pollution controls.

Coal-fired plants make people sick

Coal pollution affects all major body organ systems and contributes to four of the five leading causes of death in the United States: heart disease, cancer, stroke and chronic lower respiratory diseases, according to Physicians for Social Responsibility. Ohio ranks first in the nation in toxic air pollution with coal-fired power plants as the major contributor. Ohio ranks second in the nation in deaths from coal plants.

The market is shifting away from coal

We are already in the midst of a transition away from coal in the United States. The overall demand for electricity in Ohio is likely to remain flat, because it’s cheaper for families and businesses to buy efficient appliances, equipment and machinery than to buy more electricity. Alternatives and renewables are being developed in Ohio right now. Natural gas prices are low and expected to remain there for many years. The utility industry has begun identifying coal plants that they consider “vulnerable”- those coal plants that are smaller, older and cannot meet future regulatory upgrades, and the medium-sized ones that may or may not be able to meet the coming regulatory upgrades but doing so would not be economically feasible in this climate.

Duke Energy already has parts of Miami Fort and Beckjord coal plants “under evaluation” for retirement

In a September, 2010 presentation to the Bank of America Merrill Lynch Conference, Lynn Good, Duke Energy’s Group Executive and Chief Financial Officer listed portions of Miami Fort and Beckjord coal plants as “under evaluation” for retirement.

Any modernizations or upgrades on these old, dirty parts of the plant would be paid for through electric rates. Duke should make a much better investment right now in cleaner and cheaper sources of energy for our region.

Future regulations would make it very expensive – for the ratepayers – to operate these dirty old coal plants

Possible future federal regulations may make old coal plants too expensive to operate. It is most likely that any additional costs to maintain and upgrade these old coal plants would be passed along directly to ratepayers. There are four regulatory proposals that both industry and citizen groups believe could affect the operations at old coal plants, depending upon what is adopted and enforced:

  • Coal ash regulations

The U.S. EPA proposed two competing coal ash regulations. One, favored by citizen and citizen groups would regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste and provide stringent, enforceable rules for coal ash. The other, favored by industry, would not classify coal ash as a hazardous waste and would not provide enforceable standards. Eight public hearings were held in the fall of 2010, and the U.S. EPA received over 400,000 comments about the proposed coal ash regulations. The U.S. EPA is in the decision-making part of the process now. Congress, meanwhile, has made recent attempts to not allow funding for the strongest of the two proposed regulations on coal ash.

  • Clean Air Transport Rule

This proposal would require significant reductions in sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides emissions that cross state lines. These pollutants react in the atmosphere to form fine particles and ground-level ozone and are carried a long way by the wind, harming people’s health both inside and outside of Ohio. The Clean Air Transport Rule could be issued in draft form early this year.

  • Maximum Achievable Control Technology rules for mercury at fossil fuel power plants

This would limit mercury emissions from coal plants. A draft of the regulation was released March 16, 2011. According to the U.S. EPA the regulation as drafted would cut U.S. mercury emissions by more than half and would significantly cut other pollutants from boilers, process heaters and solid waste incinerators. These pollutants include several air toxics that are known or suspected to cause cancer or other serious health problems and environmental damage. The proposed rules are estimated to yield more than 5 dollars in public health benefits for every dollar spent. We are currently in the 45-day comment period. The final could be issued before the end of the year.

Experts estimate that if a medium-sized 500-megawatt plant needed all of the future pollution controls it could cost an estimated $785 per kilowatt. Any potential upgrades at these plants would be paid for by Duke Energy’s ratepayers.