A new study by an environmental group suggests that reining in a
handful of America’s coal-fired power plants would have a major impact
on greenhouse gas emissions.
By Mark Clayton
Fifty U.S. power plants emit more greenhouse gases from burning fossil
fuels than all but six nations, says a new report.
The study by Environment America paints a bulls-eye on the nation’s
biggest coal-fired power plants, suggesting that reining in a
relatively small share of America’s 6,000 electric generating
facilities could have a significant impact on greenhouse gas
The report comes as the Obama administration is preparing the nation’s
first-ever greenhouse gas emissions regulations for US power plants,
which could be released as soon as this month. The administration’s
goal is to have power plant emissions regulations in place by 2015,
and the new study provides a window into which plants could face steep
federal fines unless they slash emissions or close.
Of the country’s 6,000 coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear, wind, and
solar electric-generating facilities, a small sub-group of mostly
coal-fired power generators produces more than its share of the
nation’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions compared with the electricity
it produces, the report found. The “50 dirtiest” power plants
generated nearly 33 percent of the US power sector’s carbon dioxide
emissions in 2011 but only about 16 percent of its electricity.
U.S. power plants are the largest source of greenhouse gases in the
country, responsible for 41 percent of the nation’s carbon dioxide
pollution, the report states. But the “50 dirtiest” stand out for
emitting more than 2 percent of the world’s energy-related carbon
dioxide pollution — which would place them at No. 7 if they were a
country, behind Germany and ahead of South Korea.
The top CO2-emitting power plant in the U.S. — Power Plant Scherer in
Juliette, Ga. — produced more than 21 million metric tons of carbon
dioxide in 2011, a greater total than all of Maine. Ninety-eight of
the nation’s 100 most-polluting power plants in terms of total carbon
dioxide emissions are coal plants, the study found.
The report, like others, points to low-hanging fruit. Cleaning up even
a few power plants could have an outsize environmental effect, the
report’s authors say.
“America’s dirtiest power plants are the elephant in the room when it
comes to global warming,” said Julian Boggs, global warming program
director at Environment America Research & Policy Center, in a
statement. “If we want a cleaner, safer future for our kids, we can’t
afford to ignore power plants’ oversized contribution to global
Congressional supporters hailed the report as contributing a new
perspective on an old problem.
“As carbon pollution continues to compromise public health and wreak
havoc on our atmosphere and oceans, this report shines a spotlight on
the biggest culprits — power plants,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D)
of Rhode Island.
Utility industry officials say they’re already making major efforts to
cut traditional pollution emissions, such as sulfur dioxide and
nitrous oxide. The Southern Company, whose subsidiary, Georgia Power,
owns Plant Scherer, is spending billions to upgrade Scherer’s
antipollution systems, a spokesman says.
“Georgia Power and Plant Scherer comply with all standards for air and
water quality that are set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
and Georgia Environmental Protection Division,” says Mark Williams, a
company spokesman, in an e-mail.
As for greenhouse gas emissions, the company is conducting research
into “carbon capture” that could store CO2 underground, he writes. It
is also building an advanced coal-fueled plant in Mississippi that is
expected to have greenhouse gas emissions on par with a natural
gas-fired plant of the same generating capacity.
But “there are currently no demonstrated technologies to control CO2
emissions from large coal-fired power plants such as Scherer,” Mr.
The industry hopes to work with the administration and Congress “to
forge workable regulations,” said Thomas Kuhn, president of the Edison
Electric Institute, a trade group representing investor-owned
utilities, in June.
Whether that will be enough to save massive power plants like Scherer
remains to be seen. President Obama in a June speech declared his
administration would plow ground on air regulations to curb climate
change. The administration has the authority to regulate greenhouse
gas emissions under the Clean Air Act.
“We don’t have time for a meeting of the flat-earth society,” Obama
said. “Sticking your head in the sand might make you feel safer, but
it’s not going to protect you from the coming storm. And ultimately,
we will be judged as a people and as a society and as a country on
where we go from here.”