November 29, 2012

Natural gas revolution pushing coal aside

And an old coal plant in Salem, Mass., one of the state's 'Filthy Five,' is headed for demolition.

By STEVEN MUFSON The Washington Post

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An old coal plant in Salem, Mass., one of the state's 'Filthy Five,' is headed for demolition, as natural gas – a cheaper and cleaner source of energy – becomes more popular.

Washington Post

Overall, U.S. greenhouse emissions fell to their lowest level in 20 years, though warm weather last winter and lower gasoline consumption also played roles. Still, the United States is roughly on track to meet the reduction in greenhouse gases that President Barack Obama has pledged to hit by 2020.

As Salem Harbor shows, the coal industry is primed for upheaval.

The plant opened in 1951. The original GE turbine still anchors the operation. Outside, emission stacks soar as high as 491 feet. Mounds of coal, delivered by barges, sit beside the wooden dock. Automated sprinklers dampen the piles so they don't blow away.

Another throwback: The plant was grandfathered under EPA regulations so that it never had to meet the same environmental standards as new plants. And a 2000 Harvard School of Public Health study estimated that the power plant's emissions could be linked to 53 premature deaths, 16 heart attacks, 14,400 asthma attacks and 570 emergency room visits.

The new owners, Footprint Power, know full well the plant's limitations. To meet environmental standards now, Furniss said, the plant imports low-sulfur coal from Colombia.

The plant runs only when the regional grid managers call on it -- which they do based on the weather and the prices at which competing power plants are offering electric power.

Firing up the plant is time-consuming. It takes 10 or 12 hours to get the pulverizers going and the boiler temperatures up. On Oct. 4, the plant was fired up for just the second time since August. It has run 15 more times since then, mostly to provide reliability for the regional grid system.

Compare that with the $800 million natural gas plant Footprint Power hopes to build along with its partner, Toyota Tsusho, part of the Toyota group.

The highest exhaust stack on the natural gas plant will be 230 feet, less than half the tallest of the coal plant stacks. The new plant would be cooled primarily by air and would use 100,000 gallons of water a day; the coal plant cools itself with 100 million gallons of water a day from the harbor, Furniss said. And, with a new generation of gas turbines GE unveiled in September, the plant could ramp up in as little as 15 minutes, not 10 hours. (In Colorado, utility Xcel has already bought GE's turbines for a new natural gas plant that will replace a handful of closed coal plants.)

The Salem natural gas would probably be drawn from Spectra Energy's Algonquin pipeline, which passes just a couple of miles away. The volume of gas flowing through the Algonquin has surged thanks to supplies from the vast Marcellus shale gas play that stretches across Pennsylvania into adjacent states. The coal mounds would disappear.

"Obviously gas is pretty cheap, and one of the things keeping it pretty cheap is the Marcellus," Furniss said. "We assume that prices will rise as the market becomes more mature." While prices today are about $3.80 per thousand cubic feet, Furniss said that Footprint Power assumes prices will not exceed $6 "at the upper end in the foreseeable future."

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