In May, I wrote about the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed New Source Performance Standard (NSPS) for new coal fired units and how this will effectively end coal plant construction in the U.S. — even though we are sitting on over a 250-year-supply of coal. It will do this by setting a carbon-dioxide emission standard for new coal-fired power plants that is unattainable by today’s technology.
Turns out it’s worse than I first thought.
The way the Clean Air Act works is the EPA first sets a NSPS for a new source such as CO2 for a new coal unit. This will then establish the Best Available Control Technology (or BACT) for modified units. So, in theory, although EPA has said this proposed rule will only apply to new units, it can also be applied to existing units that are retrofitted or otherwise modified. What’s ironic is the clause would likely kick in when an uncontrolled coal-fired unit seeks to add the necessary scrubbing equipment in order to comply with the EPA’s Mercury Air Toxic Standard (MATS) that was finalized in February.
If we listen to the EPA, this is an implausible scenario. The EPA says NSPS is for new units only. EPA also states that modifications to control other pollutants will be exempt under the NSPS “pollution control project” exemption. You can rest assured that on the first point, conservation advocacy groups will press the courts to follow the Clean Air Act and set the new source NSPS as BACT for modified units. Chances are, they will prevail on this argument.
With step one completed, the conservation community will work to throw out the NSPS pollution control project exemption. They have already prevailed on this in another section of the Clean Air Act when several years ago this very same exemption from the Prevention of Significant Deterioration regulations was tossed out by the courts. Since there is a precedent on this issue, they will likely prevail on this point as well.
With that, existing coal-fired units that are modified will be required to meet a CO2 emission standard that is unattainable. Thus, the only option will be to shut down the unit, since there is no proven technology commercially available today to control CO2 in power generation.
When you look at the Southeast, coal supplies over 60% of our electricity and even more so in Santee Cooper’s service territory. If coal plants are forced to shut down over a very short timeframe, we would be facing energy shortages across the country, particularly across the Southeast. The reliable and affordable electricity we have always counted on will be gone and replaced by brownouts and more costly energy.
Let’s hope this doesn’t happen, that cooler heads prevail and the EPA stops making energy policy and leaves it up to Congress where it belongs.