Coal burning power plants account for the vast majority of the mercury that we contact. I’ve read statistics that 80-95% of the mercury that we contact comes from coal burning power plants. In the US, it is estimated that coal-fired power plants are responsible for half of the nation’s mercury emissions.
The mercury in the emissions literally rains down on the oceans and land falling on crops that we eat, in the rivers and oceans that we fish, and on our backyards and into our lungs. Mercury leads to many very serious mental and physical disorders.
“According to the U.S Environmental Protection Agency, mercury is responsible for thousands of premature deaths and heart attacks. It can also damage children’s nervous systems and harm their ability to think and learn. The mercury, in essence, falls back to earth where it gets into the food chain.” (energy biz, “Obama Showers Coal with Mercury Rule”, Jan 3, 2012–http://www.energybiz.com/article/12/01/obama-showers-coal-mercury-rule). I’ve read in EPA reports that there is estimated to be 50,000 pre-mature deaths every year in the US due to the emissions from coal-burning power plants. Imagine loosing an entire city of 50,000 people every year? That is a city in population not much different than Palo Alto, CA. And that figure does not count the number of lung-related issues such as asthma that develop from these emissions.
Well, the Clean Air Act provides each of us the right to clean air. As such, in December, 2011, “the EPA carried out its obligation under the 1990 Clean Air Act and demanded that coal-fired power plants implement the available technologies to reduce their emissions by 90 percent.”
These regulations are not a shock to most utilities, as they have been aware of the pending regulations for some time (since the clean air act was put into law), and most utilities actually support the law as it allows them to shut down old coal-fired power plants, which are a financial, legal and environmental liability in exchange for building new, cleaner burning and more efficient power plants. These new regulations really only affect coal plants that were constructed 30 to 50 years ago. The operators can choose to have them meet the new requirements or shut down and replace them with new, more efficient and less polluting plants– a decision compelled not just by the new regulations but also by the need to compete with lower cost shale gas. Since most utilities in the US get a return on building new infrastructure, it is good business to build new power plants. Essentially, it sets a more level playing field to the 1,400 coal-fired US power plants and ends 20 years of uncertainty about these regulations.
Will these new regulations cause electricity prices to increase? Yes, but not likely significantly, as the “EPA estimates that the cost of carrying out the new mercury rules will be about $9.6 billion annually. But it also says that payback will be as much as $90 billion by 2016 when all power plants are expected to be in compliance, or closed. The agency expects “small changes” in the average retail electricity rates, noting that the shift to abundant shale-gas will shield consumers.” I agree with that assessment, as shale-gas will keep prices down. Even though “The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity says that the new mercury rule, in combination with other pending coal-related regulations, will increase electricity prices by $170 billion” through 2020, a estimate not much different than the EPA’s and also one to likely have a very minimal affect on electricity prices since it is such a small percentage of total electricity spend per year.
The same group says that “Coal helps make electricity affordable for families and businesses,” says Steve Miller, chief executive of the coal group. “Unfortunately, this new rule is likely to be the most expensive rule ever imposed on coal-fueled power plants which are responsible for providing affordable electricity.” Of course, when one accounts for health-related costs, the new emissions rules are far less costly than paying for your son’s asthma medicine and your father’s lung cancer treatments. Finally, we are getting slightly cleaner air, something the clean air act provided to us by law over 40 years ago.