COMMENTARY: Delaware fails to shut down upwind power plants

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has rejected Delaware and Maryland petitions to shut down upwind coal-fired power plants. The EPA concluded upwind state plans to implement the recently completed Cross State Air Pollution Rule will result in Delaware and Maryland meeting all air quality standards, including ground level ozone.

Ozone has been the hardest pollutant to control because of a large component of natural sources. Plants emit volatile organic compounds that are converted into ozone in the presence of oxides of nitrogen, and sunlight on warm days.

David T.Stevenson

The petitions asked the EPA to force power plants to reduce oxides of nitrogen emission within 90 days, or to shut them down, knowing reductions could not be made in the 90 day time frame. The computer modeling supporting the petitions was paid for by the Sierra Club as part of their “Beyond Coal” campaign to shut-down all coal-fired power plants.

The models used out-of-date 2011 air quality data. The power plants the petitions want closed are the same power plants keeping the lights on as Delaware imports a third of its power from those plants, and Maryland imports 42 percent.

The petitions listed high emission days at power plants, but the Delaware Air Quality Division made no attempt to compare those days with high ozone days. It took less than an hour to compare emission information to daily ozone measurements at an air quality monitoring station in Wilmington to show no correlation between high power plant emissions days, and high ozone days.

In fact, there is essentially zero correlation between high ambient levels of nitrogen dioxide and high emission days in general. Nitrogen dioxide levels in Delaware air averaged 84 percent below the maximum allowed in 2017. The EPA concluded Delaware and Maryland did not show the required connection between emissions and air quality results.

The results of EPA efforts to reduce emissions are impressive. Pennsylvania power plants reduced emissions 60 percent from 2016 to 2017 alone, and 80 percent from the base level used in the petition using information from the U.S. Energy Information Agency.

For example, the Brunner Island power plant invested $100 million to add low emission natural gas as a flexible fuel alternative to coal, reduced emissions 75 percent in 2017, and reduced electricity cost. Being able to burn coal or cheaper natural gas adds to the regions electric grid resiliency.

Finally, politicians in Delaware have made wild claims 90 percent of Delaware’s air pollution comes from upwind power plants. This is patently false, and both Sen. Carper and the Air Quality Division did not respond to questions as to the source data for their claims, or even to a Freedom of Information Act request.

Modeling for Delmarva Power indicated only 8 percent of emissions came from out-of-state power plants with two thirds coming from in-state motor vehicles, and the rest from other in-state sources using the same 2011 data as the Division’s petitions. Given the 80 percent emissions reduction from upwind power plants, currently as little as 1 percent of emissions are coming from out of state.

There is an out-of-state pollution source the Air Quality Division could work on. On May 3, 2018, the division issued a press release Delaware would see a high ozone day because of smoke from unusually large western wildfires.

A high ozone day on Sept. 4, was also accompanied by high smoke conditions. It is likely most of the high ozone days of the last two years could be traced to western forest fires. Western forests have tree density four to six times higher than recommended for a healthy forest, along with massive amounts of underbrush.

The U.S. Forest Service, and western coastal states have neglected forest management solutions, such as, controlled burns, mechanical thinning, and logging that would greatly reduce the size of forest fires.

David T. Stevenson is director of the Center for Energy Competitiveness at the Caesar Rodney Institute, a 501(c)(3) research and education organization founded in 2008 to be a “counter voice to the prevailing wisdom in Dover that raising taxes (or not allowing them to sunset) and increasing spending, regulations, and central planning through state agencies were going to solve Delaware’s fiscal and quality of life problems.”

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