Ohio Diesel generators limit brownouts but create smog

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FirstEnergy plan sparks concerns

Diesel generators limit brownouts but create smog

Sunday, June 11, 2000


FirstEnergy Corp.s plan to get through the summer without brownouts may solve one problem only to create another - more smog and soot.

To help meet soaring electrical demand during the summer, the company has permits to install as many as 12 portable diesel generators at each of 17 substations across Northeast Ohio.

FirstEnergy expects to use them only when electrical use exceeds the amount generated.

Because the generators produce diesel fumes as well as electricity, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency limits the air pollution at each site. The state permits allow 99.9 tons of smog-forming nitrogen oxides annually and hourly releases of sulfur dioxide, a component of acid rain, equal to what the Gavin coal plant emits in Gallia County.

Federal regulators are concerned that the pollution limits are not tough enough. They are examining whether the 17 sites, scattered across Northeast Ohio, should be considered as one pollution source since they are linked together on the same power grid to provide backup energy.

Dividing the pollution among the sites and then allowing each to nose up to the 100-ton limit in the federal Clean Air Act may sidestep the laws mandate for additional pollution controls, said Genevieve Damico, who oversees Ohios air pollution permit program at the U. S. EPAs Midwest regional office in Chicago.

If the more stringent federal rules apply, smog-forming chemicals could be slashed 80 to 95 percent, Damico said.

The agency is also looking at similar permits Ohio issued for diesel generators operated by Dayton Gas and Electric and American Municipal Power.

Last year, during one of the hottest summers on record, Northeast Ohios appetite for electricity exceeded FirstEnergys 12,000- megawatt capacity on only 10 days. Still, making up the shortfall - projected to be 1,000 mega watts this summer - isnt cheap.

Last summers demand drove up the price of electricity from three cents per kilowatt hour to $9. The generators provide an alternative to buying electricity wholesale.

"Weve seen speculation as to whether utilities will be ready this summer to meet the peak demands," said FirstEnergy spokeswoman Ellen Raines. "We have already taken steps to ensure that we have adequate supply."

FirstEnergy put the generators at substations that could accommodate the equipment, close enough to the areas where the extra demand is anticipated, but tried to stay clear of residential areas.

"We chose sites that were as remote as possible," she said. "It could be something people didnt want in their back yards."

Federal environmental regulators review of how the state handled the FirstEnergy permit comes as they are also investigating claims by four statewide environmental groups that Ohio has routinely skirted the requirements of federal environmental laws.

David Altman, the groups Cincinnati lawyer, said he may add the diesel generator issue to their petition submitted to the federal EPA about Ohios lax environmental record.

Nitrogen oxides interact with hydrocarbons and sunlight - especially in the summer - to form ground-level ozone, or smog, which damages the lungs and aggravates asthma.

A Harvard University School of Public Health study last month also linked nitrogen oxides from coal plants to increased hospital admissions, among other health problems.

The only pollution control on the diesel emissions is the on-off switch. A state EPA permit for the generators says each site

must shut down after 4,742 hours of operation, or about 16.5 days of continuous operation. That is the amount of time estimated to reach the 99.9 ton cutoff for nitrogen oxides.

The diesel fumes pose no health risk because the generators will not produce "anything along the lines of the type of emissions from power plants," said Kara Allison, a spokeswoman for the Ohio EPA.

The diesel generators use an engine similar to those in diesel trucks, Raines said. But Allison

said no one at the Ohio EPA had calculated how the generators emissions compare with diesel truck pollution.

The nitrogen oxide pollution allowed at each site is equivalent to driving a fleet of 40 18-wheeler tractor-trailers in the neighborhood, according to a senior scientist with the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management, a coalition of eight northeast state environmental agencies.

The U. S. EPA has labeled diesel exhaust a likely carcinogen

and last month proposed a 100- fold cut in the sulfur content of diesel fuel to reduce the health hazards from breathing the fumes.

"This is a dilemma for society," said John Spengler, who led the Harvard University School of Public Health study of coal plant pollution. "Its our demand for electric thats driving the utilities to meet that demand."


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), June 11, 2000

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