Electric Power Generation and the Environment: An Insider’s View of Successful Air Pollution Reduction and the Coming Transition to Low Carbon Power

From my childhood in southern West Virginia through my career with a large electric utility, I have experienced first-hand the environmental effects of unfettered industrial development. Yet I have also seen how a combination of strong environmental regulations and good faith compliance by industry over many years can result in remarkable and sustainable improvement.

Air quality in the U.S. has improved dramatically over the past 40 years even as energy consumption has increased many-fold. We enjoy some of the cleanest air in the world, but it took decades of sustained policies and regulations, technical innovation and costly investment to reach this point. That story deserves to be told and recognized. Looking ahead, it can provide a model for success as we confront the challenges of climate change and the transition to a low carbon world.

I grew up in Charleston, West Virginia, in the Kanawha valley, during the nineteen fifties and sixties. The Kanawha Valley was then known as “the Chemical Valley.” From the 1950s through the 1970s it was one of the largest producers of chemicals in the world, home to plants and research centers operated by Union Carbide, Dow, DuPont, Westvaco, and Monsanto, among others. Charleston was pleasant and prosperous but it had some of the worst air and water pollution imaginable.   Many days a chemical stench overwhelmed the valley. The Kanawha River was a chemically polluted “dead” river. In those days there were almost no federal or state environmental regulations, no EPA, no OSHA.

Growing up, many of my friends’ dads were engineers and scientists who worked for the local chemical companies.  As a good student with an engineer father and older brother, it was almost inevitable that I too would become a mechanical engineer. But I also absorbed the political environment of the ‘60s, becoming aware of the injustices in society and hoping to make a positive contribution to the causes I believed in.

After graduation I was drawn to the electric utility business. I was proud to help provide a vital public service and fascinated by the science, massive equipment and the almost romantic hundred-year legacy of the power industry. A combination of practical and academic experience along with a desire to make a difference eventually led to the job I was “born to do” — managing engineering for a ten-year, $2 billion series of air pollution control projects at the company’s large coal fired units.

These projects were in response to stringent new federal regulations that targeted the “acid rain” pollutants, primarily Sulfur Oxides (SOx), Nitrogen Oxides (NOx), and particulates. Electric utilities tend to be ethical companies that willingly comply with environmental laws and regulations, especially when the regulations are reasonable, based on sound science, and affect all companies equally.

The technology to capture power plant air pollution is massive, complex, and costly. For each generating unit, three types of equipment were installed in series, each targeting a specific pollutant. The result was the elimination of over 98% of SOx and particulate emissions, 90% of NOx emissions, and virtually 100% of particulate emissions for each generating unit. The improvement in ambient air quality was enormous while the cost of electricity was only minimally affected.

Each project required about four years from conception to start-up and costs for each were in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The project teams were led by the utility’s project manager and engineering manager, and also included research scientists, design engineers, equipment manufacturers, and constructors from many supplier companies. We were all well aware of the value of our work and proud of what we were accomplishing. At the completion of each project it was great to see the tangible results – a smoothly running plant with clean stacks, with the former pollutants being captured as beneficial byproducts. Meanwhile similar programs were taking place all across the country.

During the past ten years the world of power generation has changed enormously. The environmental emphasis has shifted from acid rain pollutants to carbon dioxide emissions. Coal is quickly being replaced by natural gas and by renewable sources such as solar and wind. Hundreds of coal fired units have been permanently shut down and demolished and many of the remaining ones will be gone within the next ten years. The pace of the transition away from coal would have been inconceivable only a few years ago, and it is accelerating. The old coal plants are massive monuments to a hundred years of brilliant innovation and development, but their days are numbered and the world will better for it.

Just as the drastic reduction of acid rain air pollutants seemed nearly impossible twenty years ago, so too the transition to a low carbon future is occurring at an unexpectedly rapid pace. The costs of renewable energy projects have been reduced to a point where they now successfully compete economically with fossil fuel generation. Natural gas and renewable energy sources are predicted to account for 85% of the world’s energy growth by 2040.  

Despite the continuing transition to lower carbon energy, serious challenges remain. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are the highest in human history. Developing countries are continuing to build new coal fired power plants. Meanwhile, global energy consumption is expected to grow by 28% by 2040, with most of this demand coming from the developing world.

Climate change is a serious issue, maybe even a crisis, and the future of power generation may be the single most important issue in the world. The challenges are enormous but there is much cause for optimism.  We stand on the brink of changes in the world of power as drastic as those that began with Edison and Tesla and Westinghouse at the turn of the 20th century. New and improved renewable energy technologies are emerging every day. The future of transportation will soon be electric zero-emission vehicles.

Someday in the near future the concept of burning fuels to produce heat and power may seem as outmoded as cooking over open fires, and carbon emissions will be much lower. With a concerted effort, a future of sustainable clean power can become the key to combating climate change, improving standards of living and reducing poverty throughout the world.

I am optimistic that we have the tools, and the know-how to achieve this positive vision.  Just look at the progress that has been made from Edison’s first practical light bulb to the electrification of the world during the 20th century, the dramatic reduction in air and water pollution in recent decades, and now the emergence of renewable energy.  The path to a better future will take political will, integrity, and huge investments in new equipment and technology.  I’m convinced that it can and will happen.

Bullying Nature

It is a bright spring day in Shepherdstown and I am gazing out my window at my self-inflicted folly – the swimming pool in my back yard. Nature wasn’t on board with the original happy plans behind this water-filled hole. Instead, nature wants to use it to grow all sorts of bacteria and algae, and allow mosquitos, toads and any other interested party to lay eggs and spawn their young. Ah, but we have the answers for nature, right? Engineering, pumps and chemicals. Every summer with much effort and money thrown at the problem, we win – temporarily. But let up a moment and nature inexorably overcomes our efforts. A swimming pool is a fool’s errand to push a large rock up a hill.

A swimming pool is an apt metaphor for what I am trying to say in this piece. Humans are the most intelligent animals ever to walk the earth. But at some point we got a little too impressed with our abilities and began to bully nature into doing what it didn’t want to do. That’s when the trouble started.

Most of our attempts to bully nature have involved water.  Although essential for life in the right amounts, water has developed a bad reputation.  It has the nasty habit of accumulating in huge amounts and sweeping away everything in its path. English and American common law alike have declared water a “common enemy.”

When our engineering know-how and the power of our machines reached a certain level in the 19th century, we engaged water in what amounted to an arm-wrestling match. This contest has not been without its fits and starts, its wins and losses on both sides. But we have begun to realize that when we overcome nature with brute force, there is always an unexpected price to pay.

I just returned from a short trip to the Everglades in southern Florida. The Everglades are really nothing more than the overflow from Lake Okeechobee, which flows in a sheet down a very slight grade to the Gulf of Mexico. Early Florida pioneers saw immediately that if the Everglades could be drained, thousands of acres of rich land would become available for cultivation.

The 19th century saw one failed scheme after another to drain “the swamp.”  But it looked like success was at hand until 1928 when a hurricane filled the Lake and caused it to burst through a dike, drowning 2500 people. Corpses were stacked and burned by the roadsides. The Army Corps of Engineers then changed the rationale for draining the Everglades from reclamation to flood control. The Hoover Dike was constructed, which cut off Lake Okeechobee from the northern Everglades. This solved the flooding problem but created many others.

What once was a swamp dried out and became like a desert. The absence of fresh water allowed salt water to invade the water table, ruining farms. The stress of low water wreaked havoc on the food chain. Sawgrass invaded water-lily sloughs, while other species invaded parched sawgrass marshes.  Populations of wading birds rapidly declined. Then in 1939 one million acres caught fire and burned. Now conservationists and environmentalists have a seat at the table and a serious effort is underway to restore the Everglades.

The April 1, 2019 issue of The New Yorker chronicled a similar example. For millennia, the Mississippi River has over-flooded its banks and deposited silt and soil debris all over southern Louisiana, building up and extending the land in all directions. Because these floods had obvious harmful effects for humans, we built levees along the river for hundreds of miles. Now there are few catastrophic floods that breach the levees. This is a good thing, right?

Well, yes and no. The problem is that there are no further soil deposits to build up the land. The land that was formerly deposited through flooding has begun to compact and subside, allowing the Gulf to retake large areas. At present southern Louisiana seen from a satellite is nothing more than the snake of the Mississippi bounded by levees and a few hundred acres of land on either side.

Believe it or not, the current solution to this problem is more engineering on a massive scale to be paid for with mountains of tax money. One part of this solution is to dredge up silt from the bottom of the river and use massive diesel pumps to redeposit it into areas that would otherwise subside into non-existence. Another part is to cut holes in the levees and during flood periods allow water and silt to inundate areas that have heavily subsided.  The New Yorker piece rightly concludes that humans have so altered nature in an attempt to take control that now we are attempting to take control of our efforts to take control.

All this says to me that when we consider the so-called problems that nature creates, we need less hubris and more wisdom.  We need fewer brute force solutions and a more harmonious approach that doesn’t struggle so much with the way nature works. Maybe through taxation and other policies we could encourage the depopulation of places like New Orleans and Phoenix, where people simply cannot be protected from nature. Brute force may succeed in the short run, but at a huge cost with harmful consequences to environmental balance. And because of entropy and our human fallibility, the brute force solutions always fail in the long-run.

But what could I possibly know? I’m the one who built a swimming pool. Could you excuse me while I go empty the skimmers?