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Wednesday, July 16,2014

Postponing King Coal’s retirement

Pressure is on for BWL to plan beyond aging coal plants

by Lawrence Cosentino
Fed up with delays by the Lansing Board of Water and Light to retire its coalfired Eckert Power Station, local activists are pressing the utility to set a date to close the 60-year-old facility.

The stage is set for a sharp discussion this fall over the BWL's future energy mix. The activist group, led by The Sierra Club's Brad van Guilder, says it will be costly to run the Eckert Plant past 2016, when new federal Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, or MATS, go into effect.

The delay in closing Eckert is part of a larger planning discussion the activist group wants to jumpstart, calling for wide community involvement. At a June 10 meeting, the group showed a fivepoint petition to Sandra Zerkle, chairwoman of BWL Board of Commissioners, vice chairman Dennis Louney, BWL CEO J. Peter Lark, and the director of strategic planning, George Stojic. The petition, which the group is circulating this summer, calls on the BWL to commit to a "date certain" for the closing of both the Eckert and 41-year-old Erickson power plants, make energy replacements through energy efficiency and Michigan based renewable energy and commit to a "just transition" for its workforce. The petition also calls for an "inclusive and transparent community planning process" to implement these goals.

The group plans to submit the petition, after gathering signatures, to the entire BWL board this fall.

The Eckert plant is by far the biggest emitter of particulate matter, volatile organic compounds, mercury, carbon dioxide and sulfur oxides and nitrogen oxides in the tri-county area of Ingham, Eaton and Clinton counties, according to the EPA, dwarfing polluters such as GM's Grand River and Delta plants and even BWL's own Erickson plant.

But BWL's Stojic said the public utility "simply cannot" give a certain date for closing Eckert without "potentially undermining" reliability of service to Lansing's downtown concentration of manufacturers and businesses, especially during periods of peak demand in summer.

Meanwhile, BWL is building two interconnections to the outside power grid, the International Transmission Co. and its subsidiary, Michigan Electric Transmission Co., owners and operators of the power grid in Michigan's Lower Peninsula. Until the connections are done, Stojic said, Eckert can't be closed, even though the plant is only used "sparingly" for most of the year, except during peak summer demand periods.

Stojic said that building the interconnections, transmission lines and substations needed to put a downtown transmission network into place can be more time-consuming than building power plants. He guessed it would take "certainly less than seven years, but probably more than four."

In July 2013, when the BWL's new gasfired REO Town cogeneration plant opened, Lark told City Pulse that the plant's three oldest units were "close to shutdown" and would stay on standby for summer 2013. After that, Lark said, they "will not see much work again, ever." The three newer turbines were scheduled to phase out by 2017, Lark said. However, at a June 10 meeting, Lark told the Sierra Club group it could take five to seven years to close Eckert.

Stojic said Tuesday that Lark's 2013 projections were changed because "it takes more time than we thought it was going to take to reinforce our transmission system." He said the buildout is challenging, in part, because BWL's transmission system was centralized in the downtown area for over 100 years and the utility had to move carefully into new territory.

To replace the capacity lost by shutting down Eckert, the activist group wants the BWL to speed up work on the transmission line and step up its solar and wind initiatives. Van Guilder said the line could be completed in three years.

BWL has contracted for 20megawatts of wind energy from turbines that will be erected in August in Gratiot County, with electricity scheduled to come on line in October. The utility has also issued a Request for Proposal for up to 5 megawatts of solar energy. The BWL's one-year-old REO Town cogeneration plant, by comparison, generates up to 100 mesgawatts of electricity.

"One really good thing about BWL is that unlike the other two major utilities in Michigan, they have embraced solar," van Guilder said. "I'd like to see them call for 5 megawatts of solar every year."

Stojic said solar energy has "particular value" because it correlates with peak summer demand. The BWL plans to triple its 54 kilwattsolar array on Cedar Street, at one time the state's largest, to about 160 kilowatts. He marveled that solar technology has improved to the point that "we're putting triple the capacity into less space at a third of the cost of the original."

As regulations on coal-fired plants get stricter and renewable energy technology gets more efficient, keeping the Eckert Plant wheezing past 2020 looks more short-sighted than ever.

Van Guilder and Stojic disagree on the cost of pollution controls that will be needed to keep Eckert going past 2016.

Stojic said that in view of improved pollution control technology, it's "easily" cheaper for BWL to hang on to the Eckert plant a while longer.

Van Guilder predicted "extremely high costs," especially if the EPA decides to implement the Cross State Air Pollution Rule, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court this year, but Stojic said the rule would have "no substantial impact" on BWL operations.

Everyone agrees that the Eckert plant is no spring chicken. Unlike the efficient REO Town plant, the turbines at Eckert take 10 hours to start up and each turn of the key costs $4,000 to $7,000 in oil, according to Lark.

Some of the turbines have had recent mechanical problems. "Maintenance is an issue," Stojic said. "There might be another reason to remove some of them from service."

With Eckert in its dotage, now is the time for the community to take a keen interest in BWL's planning process, Anne Woiwode, director of the Sierra Club's Michigan chapter, urged at a July 1 meeting at Foster Community Center.

"What we saw with the ice storm was this incremental decision making: 'Here's the problem we have to fix today,'" Woiwode said. "The lack of planning means you never have the chance to get ahead of the curve."

Woiwode said the BWL has been urged to listen to its owner/customers in the wake of the ice storm and it's time to press that advantage.

"We don't want them to go back behind that wall and disappear from public view, saying 'we've got it all under control,'" she said.

Mercury rising

Pollution controls at BWL's Erickson plant installed but idle for years

Controls that would slash toxic mercury emissions by over 90 percent have been installed and ready to go at BWL's Erickson power plant since 2008 but haven't been turned on, to save money and because the utility didn't have to.

EPA data show that the Erickson plant spewed 46 pounds of mercury, a known neurotoxin, in 2012 alone, the most recent year for which data are available.

George Stojic, the BWL's director of strategic planning and development, said the activated carbon devices were installed in 2007, when new state mercury rules looked imminent, and tested early in the following year.

"It tested successfully when it was installed," Stojic said.

The state rules were never finalized, but the federal EPA issued long-awaited standards for mercury and other toxic metals emitted by power plants in 2011. Stojic said the controls at Erickson will be turned on by April 2016 to comply with federal Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, or MATS, which go into effect then.

The amount of mercury per unit of energy produced puts Erickson's mercury emissions on a par with the nation's dirtiest coal plants, according to the Sierra Club's Brad van Guilder.

"It is outrageous that they would have the pollution controls in place and not run them, but it is common in the utility industry," van Guilder said.

"We haven't run it because there has been no requirement to run it," Stojic said. "There is a cost to activated carbon, so we have chosen not to run it."

Stojic didn't have an estimate of the cost, but said it would have to be figured into any utility rate increase.

Multiple sources say the carbon injection devices would cut mercury emissions by 90 to 94 percent and possibly more.

Mercury is especially dangerous to fetuses, young children and pregnant mothers. It settles in lakes and rivers and works its way up the food chain to top predators such as fish. Coal-fired power plants are the nation's biggest source of mercury pollution, according to the EPA.

The buildup of mercury in the environment has turned eating fish into a roll of the dice in Michigan, especially for more vulnerable parts of the population. The state's latest "Eat Safe Fish" guidelines start with the following advice:

"If you are a healthy adult who is not planning on having children in the next several years and you don’t fish in an area that has “Do Not Eat” signs posted by Michigan Department of Community Health, then it is usually OK to eat most Michigan fish one or two times a year without looking them up in the Eat Safe Fish Guide first."
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