Best Substitutes for Coal

Robert UkeileyBy ROBERT UKEILEY

We are starting to see tangible results from Clean Air Act implementation in the electricity sector.

One of the Clean Air Act programs is designed to protect scenic vistas in special places, such as national parks and wilderness areas. Air pollution, mainly from coal-fired power plants but also from other sources, creates haze that can obscure the view in some of the most beautiful places in the country. In 1977, Congress created the “Regional Haze” program. Congress amended the Clean Air Act in 1990 to update the Regional Haze program. The program requires certain large sources of pollution to meet emission limits based on the Best Available Retrofit Technology (BART), and requires states to plan additional provisions, phased in over time, resulting in the restoration of natural visibility conditions by 2064.

In setting BART emission limits, state air pollution control agencies and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must consider the remaining useful life of the source of pollution. If the pollution source is not long for this world, it can get away with installing less protective and thus less expensive pollution control devices. This provision recently was used by the EPA to finalize a BART rule for Oregon’s only coal-fired power plant, Portland General Electric’s Boardman facility. It requires the facility to shut down in either 2016 or 2020. Portland General Electric gets to choose which date, but if it goes for the 2020 option, it is required to install more effective but more expensive pollution control devices. Boardman is just one of many coal-fired power plants that will be shut down as the EPA decreases its decades-old backlog of implementing environmental protections under the Clean Air Act.

In my experience, left to their own devices, most utilities would choose to replace coal-fired plants with large natural gas power plants. It is the smallest step away from tradition fossil-fuel practices. The renewable-energy and energy-efficiency community needs to step into this space created by environmental regulations and push for renewable energy and energy efficiency, rather than allow utilities simply to replace coal with somewhat-less-dirty centralized fossil-fuel and nuclear power plants. Stepping in includes participating in public utility commission processes. It’s our job to help decide the best replacement for old coal. We also need to work directly with the utilities and, of course, with electricity’s customers.

Robert Ukeiley (rukeiley@igc.org) is a lawyer who represents environmental nonprofits in Clean Air Act litigation affecting energy issues.

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