Power crisis will add to Calif. smog

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Tucson, Arizona Monday, 7 May 2001

Power crisis will add to Calif. smog


LOS ANGELES - Power plants working overtime to help the state avoid rolling blackouts this summer will deliver a blow to California's clean-air efforts.

The increased emissions are coming despite last-minute pro-jects at several plants to install pollution-cutting equipment.

The power crunch is sullying the nation's worst air on several levels: Big generators are exceeding their limits; smaller "peaker plants" are adding to the haze; and emergency diesel generators are quickly rising in number and in hours of operation. Kilowatt per kilowatt, the diesel generators are 200 times dirtier than the cleanest natural gas plants.

After this summer, however, the power crunch ultimately could result in cleaner air. Overpolluting power companies will have to compensate with improved emission controls and pay fees that will be used to cut pollutants from other sources.

"There will be higher (pollution) levels this summer, but they will be lower for some time to come," said Michael Scheible, deputy executive officer for the California Air Resources Board.

The board expects the state's major power plants to be about a third cleaner this summer than they were a year ago. But they'll pollute more because they'll run more often to compensate for the loss of electricity that California normally would have imported from out of state.

A drop in hydroelectric power from the Pacific Northwest and the faltering credit of investor-owned utilities have been blamed for the shortfall.

Vehicles are worst offenders

The increases might not add noticeably to hazy skylines because power plants have been responsible for only about 3 percent of the oxides of nitrogen in the state's air. Vehicles account for more than half.

But the emissions are a setback for state and regional agencies that have prided themselves on blazing a pollution-fighting trail for the nation.

Oxides of nitrogen are a key component of smog, which causes and aggravates breathing problems.

Diesel engines, a major producer of that pollutant and toxic soot, are increasingly being enlisted as stopgap power providers amid forecasts of a summer filled with temporary outages.

The number of applications for diesel backup generators in the South Coast Air Quality Management District has roughly doubled to about 250 so far this year, district spokesman Sam Atwood said.

But there likely are hundreds more generators popping up. Applications are required only when a generator would be near a school or power plant.

Bob Graydon, president and chief executive officer of MQ Power, a Carson manufacturer and distributor of diesel generators, said sales of the company's larger units - 400 kilowatts or more - are up 40 percent to 50 percent so far this year.

The state also is pushing midsize "peaker plants" as a buffer against blackouts by allowing them to be approved on a fast-track schedule. The plants will run during times of peak energy use.

Those natural gas plants ultimately will have to use the least-polluting technology but don't have to do so in the short term.

"These things are horrible," said Mike Thomas, a representative of Communities for a Better Environment. Thomas lives near San Francisco's Portero power plant, where three 52-megawatt peaker plants are running at full capacity because of the power crisis. "These peakers, they burn like jet fuel."

Major power plants, meanwhile, are lowering emissions by 90 percent or more through a process called selective catalytic reduction - in which exhaust injected with ammonia is routed through a catalytic converter.

More than half of the 24,000 megawatts California generates through large natural-gas-fired plants this summer will come from plants equipped with catalytic reduction, said the Air Resources Board's Scheible. That's more than double the amount of lower-polluting power that the state had last year, he said.

"Credits" caused delays

The equipment has been available for years, but Southern California power plant operators were able to delay making the improvements under a South Coast Air Quality Management District program. Called RECLAIM, the program allows power plants and other polluters to sell "credits" - emissions capacity they don't use - to other companies that need them.

When the program began in 1994, credit allocations were set high enough that power plant emissions didn't begin to approach regulators' steadily shrinking limits until the late 1990s. Power plant pollution levels changed little from 1995 until the 1999-2000 fiscal year, when they jumped 20 percent.

"There wasn't the financial driver to install the controls," said Ed Blackford, site manager for a Huntington Beach power plant owned by AES.

He said the company planned improvements for "a time that it would become economically justified, but that period last year went by in a heartbeat."

When the power supply grew tighter last summer, power plant operators had to use their most polluting facilities more often, just as the supply of pollution credits for power plants started dipping below the levels the facilities had been using.

In the first quarter of 2001, power plants emitted more than double the oxides of nitrogen that they did for the same period in 2000.

Under emergency revisions that could become permanent this month, power plants could exceed emission limits if they pay the district $7.50 per pound of extra pollution and agree to quickly install pollution controls. The district estimates that will bring $50 million in fees - money that


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), May 07, 2001

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