SALT LAKE CITY — A new report ranking carbon dioxide emissions produced by power plants puts Utah's rate at No. 6 in the nation but also notes significant strides made by industry in reducing other pollutants.
The report, crafted by environmental advocacy organizations, energy companies and the Bank of America, was released in anticipation of a new rule the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to issue Monday targeting existing power plants.
That rule will set limits on carbon dioxide emissions for the first time and force aging power plants across the country to embrace technological fixes or shutter their operations.
With 68 percent of the 6,400 power plants in the country producing energy from fossil fuels, the rule is alternately being hailed by environmentalists as long overdue and resisted in large measure as overbearing.
In Utah, Rocky Mountain Power spokesman Paul Murphy said the aging Carbon Power Plant outside of Helper is in the school of power generators slated to retire 34,000 megawatts of capacity by 2016 because emission fixes are not feasible. The plant, generating power since 1954, was already scheduled to "retire" in April 2015, Murphy said, because of federal environmental regulations.
"We have weighed carefully the cost to customers of closing a power plant that is nearing the end of its useful life compared to investing more money to keep the plant running longer," Murphy said, adding that closure won over upgrades.
The Benchmarking Air Emissions report, in its 10th year, is based on data reported to the U.S. Energy Administration and the EPA and was released this week by Ceres, Bank of America, several leading utilities and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
It analyzes nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, mercury and carbon dioxide emissions from the nation’s 100 largest electric power producers, which operate 2,700 power plants and generate 86 percent of the country’s electricity.
Utah's ranking is derived from the amount of carbon dioxide emissions in 2012, 35.7 million tons, per megawatt-hour of energy generated in the state — 1,814.
The rule is expected to be a game changer and help to continue the United States on a path of decreasing overall greenhouse gas emissions, which dipped 8 percent from 2008 to 2012. Carbon dioxide emissions, while higher in 2012 than in 1990, also decreased by 13 percent during that four-year period, when the country was gripped by a major recession.
"The EPA announcement is clearly a pivotal moment the world will be watching closely," said Mindy Lubber, president of Ceres.
The report points to dramatic decreases in the emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide from the largest power producers since 1990, with reductions of 79 percent and 74 percent, respectively.
For the slate of pollutants laid at Rocky Mountain Power's table, Murphy said technology investments since 2005 have shaved sulfur dioxide by 58 percent, nitrogen oxide by 41 percent and by 10 percent for mercury.
Lubber says those numbers tell the story of what tighter air pollution standards can achieve in the United States, ultimately improving the health of both the public and the environment by shrinking harmful emissions.
While industry may balk at the standards, Lubber said companies can and do meet those thresholds.
"But we need faster action. We need to level the playing field" so industry knows what the barometer is, she added.
In 2014, coal is expected to provide 62 percent of PacifiCorp’s energy capacity and drop to 46 percent in 2024, Murphy said, adding the company has spent $1.4 billion between 2005 and 2012 to reduce emissions from coal. Rocky Mountain Power is a subsidiary of PacifiCorp.
"By investing in renewable energy resources and energy-efficiency programs, and retiring coal units where it made sense to do so, we have reduced our carbon intensity," Murphy said.
But the report notes that the "carbon footprint" varies greatly from state to state, shaped in large measure on whether a state is coal dependent for power generation (like Utah) and if it is a next exporter of the energy it produces (like Utah).
"Utah is the sixth highest because of its significant amount of coal-fired activity," said Dan Bakal, director of electric power at Ceres.
Bakal noted that power generators that are able to reduce that "carbon intensity" do so by retiring by the older and least efficient plants in their fleet and by implementing energy savings programs.
For Utah, he added, the carbon dioxide emission rate ought to be a conversation starter for public policymakers.
"Each year, a significant amount of renewable energy is coming online. We see this as an opportunity to diversify a bit away from coal and toward renewables," Bakal said.
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