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Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Ohio Power Plants Respond To New Regulations

The Painesville, Ohio, power plant recently turned 125 years old. It still burns coal to produce electricity, though operators expect to complement Painesville power production with wind and hydropower in the near future. (Brian Bull/WCPN)

The Painesville, Ohio, power plant recently turned 125 years old. It still burns coal to produce electricity, though operators expect to complement Painesville power production with wind and hydropower in the near future. (Brian Bull/WCPN)

Last week President Obama announced that he is directing the Environmental Protection Agency to crack down on air pollution from coal-powered utility plants.

As part of a more aggressive stance to curb climate change, federal regulators will now write carbon emission standards for existing plants, as well as any built in the future.

In Ohio, coal operators are generally opposed to the new regulations. But the response from some power plant operators has been more muted.

From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Brian Bull from WCPN in Cleveland explains that many utilities there are already moving away from coal.

Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

The energy industry is responding to President Obama's plan for a crackdown on air pollution from power plants. The president wants the Environmental Protection Agency to force existing plants, as well as any plants built in the future, to limit their carbon emissions. As you might imagine, many coal plant operators are opposed to these new regs. But in Ohio, many utilities have been more muted in their response because they are already moving away from coal. From the HERE AND NOW Contributors Network, Brian Bull, from WCPN in Cleveland, reports.

BRIAN BULL, BYLINE: There are more than 100 coal-fired power plants in Ohio, and they generate 80 percent of the state's electrical power. The plentiful supply of coal is a part of what's kept electricity prices below the national average here for at least the last 15 years. On the flipside, Ohio's heavy dependence on coal power has helped her earned fourth place in the rankings of carbon dioxide emitting states. So in Ohio, there's a lot at stake in the new path Washington is taking to reduce those CO2 emissions. Coal producers see a gloomy future.

CHUCK UNGUREAN: It's going to hurt the United States because it will drive up our electric costs. Our manufacturing will not be competitive.

BULL: That's Chuck Ungurean, president of Oxford Resources, which runs 17 coalmines in Ohio.

UNGUREAN: The price of electricity will definitely go up 30, 40, 50 percent, and that's just a wild guess.

Just how much the price of the electricity will fluctuate will depend on new expenditures power plants that continue to emit carbon would have to pay, something the president alluded to last week. What hits closest to home for coal companies and miners, though, is jobs. Three thousand people work in coal production in Ohio, and those jobs are at risk if power companies switch from coal to other power sources. That's already happening and has been for a while. Ohio University's Mike Zimmer is a specialist on energy, economics and the environment.

MIKE ZIMMER: The coal market is shifting. Coal jobs in Ohio has been declining the past 10 years. Electric utilities themselves have already started to switch and use natural gas rather than coal two or three years ago.

BULL: Power companies have been retrofitting some coal plants with technology that allows them to burn cleaner, and they've been phasing out older plants. American Electric Power produces 60 percent of its power from coal now.

MELANIE MCHENRY: We already have a plan that will bring that number down below 50 percent by 2020.

BULL: That's Melanie McHenry, a spokeswoman for American Electric Power.

MCHENRY: Part of that transition includes relying more on natural gas.

BULL: Natural gas is cheaper and cleaner than coal. FirstEnergy, another big Ohio utility, says natural gas is a key part of its strategy in reducing greenhouse gases and says it's already ahead of schedule in meeting current emission standards. So when the president announced that broader, more stringent regulation is coming, utilities here took a cautious but not necessarily critical tone. Here's FirstEnergy's Stephanie Thornton.

STEPHANIE THORNTON: You know, any new regulation do have the potential to have impacts on prices and jobs, but we'll have to continue to evaluate what those may be over the coming months.

BULL: President Obama directed the EPA to draft carbon standards for existing power plants by June of 2014, with final regulations a year after that. The agency is to issue new standards for future plants within three months. Power companies say they need standards that are technically achievable, and they want certainty about emission standards, a stable horizon, as one utility put it. They say that would allow them to plan for more decisive investments in greener energy sources. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Brian Bull in Cleveland.

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

And up next, as an entire state mourns, authorities try to piece together what happened to those 19 firefighters killed in Arizona. That's in one minute. HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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