Zombie Coal Plants Show Why Trump’s Emergency Plan Is No Cure-All
Two old Virginia power plants already operate under federal emergency authority. They don’t meet pollution standards, and one failed and has been offline for weeks.
Yorktown, where Lord Cornwallis accepted General Washington’s victory to end the American Revolution, would seem like an appropriate spot for a surrender in the war on coal.
Instead, two outdated coal-fired power plants there, the Yorktown 1 and 2 units operated by Dominion Energy, are limping along in the Virginia heat.
Inefficient, uncompetitive, and out of compliance with federal pollution standards, and long slated for retirement, the Yorktown boilers have been fired back up intermittently since last year under an emergency license granted by the Department of Energy using a rarely invoked authority of the Federal Power Act (FPA).
Energy Secretary Rick Perry granted that request by the regional grid operator, PJM Interconnection, because without Yorktown’s supplies the local area faced possible blackouts or power rationing when the summer heat drove up demand. That would affect such places as Langley Air Force Base, William and Mary College, and 600,000 electric customers in and around Hampton Roads.
At the moment, Yorktown is the only generating station in the country where power is being supplied by coal plants on an emergency basis to preserve the grid’s reliability.
But that could happen at many more if the Trump administration gets its way and invokes the FPA and another law, the Defense Production Act, to keep old coal and nuclear plants in operation on grounds that closing them would present a national security emergency.
As the seasonal heat arrived in Virginia this year and these units coughed back into action, Yorktown turned out to be a poor exemplar for national policy. Running these old coal plants on standby in case the grid gets overloaded creates extra pollution, costs extra money, and introduces extra risk of failure.
A Vicious Circle
To nobody’s surprise, heat waves like the one that has gripped much of the country in early July caused electric demand to spike. It reached 44,557 megawatts across PJM’s eastern power market on June 3, the highest since last August, according to Bloomberg News.
As the power plants at Yorktown dealt with the demand, they increased the region’s pollution burden, pumping out not only mercury and other unhealthy pollutants, but also adding steadily to the carbon dioxide layer that warms the planet—and causes more heat waves in the long run.
Reports filed every two weeks by the utility lay out in stark numbers the rise and fall of power generation and pollution in the first few weeks of the summer.
In late May, PJM asked for the first Yorktown unit to fire up, and then the second. Each spun up in turn for several hours, then churned along generating as much as 146 megawatts of power at full steam. The pollution, too, climbed along with power output. Each unit at full power put out more than 130 tons of carbon dioxide an hour, hundreds to thousands of pounds of sulfur dioxide an hour, various forms of smog and soot, and smaller but still harmful levels of lead and mercury, among other pollutants.
Whatever the pollution consequences, it has proven dicey to treat these plants as a reliable source of power. Both units operated all right in May. But in early June, one of them “suffered an unexpected failure of a critical component,” Dominion reported. It could no longer operate. The second generator was kept working, off and on.
Dominion Power, which reported to the government in mid-June that the first unit could not be brought back into service until “late summer, at the earliest,” now hopes to have it back in service by the end of this month, spokesman Dan Genest said.
Still, the combination of hot temperatures, strained transmission lines, and balky coal generators is a “cause for concern,” he said.
Aging Coal Plants Just Can’t Compete
The Trump administration has been trying, at the request of politically connected coal and utility companies, to ram through emergency supports for coal-fired plants ever since it came into office.
It had been clear for a long time that market pressures and environmental controls had been pushing utilities to shut down the worst coal plants.