May 20, 2024
Putnam County's coal plant is in the crosshairs

Photo: Seminole Electric Cooperative

Editor's Page

Putnam County's coal plant is in the crosshairs

New EPA rules hit Florida's rural population hard.

Mark R. Howard | 3/28/2016

Putnam County, about an hour south of Jacksonville on the west side of the St. Johns River, is Florida's poorest county. At $32,497, median household income lags the statewide median by about $15,000 a year. Only about one in 10 of the county's 72,000 residents has a bachelor's degree; more than one in four lives in poverty. The most recent unemployment rate was 6.4%, compared to the statewide average of 4.7%.

On the outskirts of Palatka, Putnam County's seat, sits one of the county's few significant economic engines, the Seminole Electric Cooperative power plant. About 300 people work there. They're paid decent wages — an average of about $75,000 — and their spending creates at least a few hundred more jobs in the area. The plant is the county's biggest taxpayer and plays a big role in the community, sponsoring everything from livestock shows to fundraisers for local causes.

Meanwhile, the electricity produced by the plant amounts to more than half the power generated by the Seminole co-op, which serves nine utilities and 1. 6 million customers in mostly rural, low-income areas in 42 Florida counties.

The plant's presence is felt and seen in another way, however. From its two giant smokestacks, fat billows of exhaust — mostly water vapor — pour relentlessly into the sky, the byproduct of the 10,000 tons of coal burned there each day. That particular fuel is, to put it mildly, out of favor with the current administration in Washington. The Clean Power Plan standards set out in August by the Environmental Protection Agency let states choose: They can require power plants to reduce the "rate" of carbon dioxide produced per megawatt generated. Or they can require the plants to meet a target for the total amount — "mass" — of carbon dioxide produced. Overall, Florida must cut the rate of carbon dioxide emissions generated per megawatt hour by 26% by 2030.

The standards are aimed squarely at cutting coal use. Some utilities, including FPL, which generates power mostly with natural gas and nuclear, already meet the CPP mandates. And for some of Florida's 15 coal-fired generating plants, the CPP is moot because they'll age out of existence as the rules phase in.

Not so, however, the Seminole plant, whose lifespan was expected to extend to 2045. Among coal plants, it's one of the cleaner ones, and it has spent more than $250 million in the past decade on environmental control equipment.

The plant says there's no existing technology that will enable it to meet the CPP standards. If it's forced to close, it says, there are more whammies involved than the loss of jobs in Putnam County. The plant is financed through 2042, so the co-op and its ratepayers will be on the hook for several hundred million dollars in debt. Constructing a gas-fired plant (and a gas pipeline) to replace the coal plant would entail millions more in borrowing — and further drive up the electric bills of the co-op's customers.

If the owners of a private-sector manufacturing business s down a plant of similar economic consequence to a community like Putnam — even for valid business or competitive reasons — you can best believe that the barometer of outrage would be spiking in the red zone. So far, however, a government regulatory policy that could devastate Putnam County's economy and raise electric bills for more than 1 million residents of rural areas throughout Florida seems to be getting the benefit of the doubt. Unemployed plant workers, presumably, would take solace in knowing their jobs were sacrificed in the fight against global warming. Solace, however, won't put groceries on the table.

It may not come to that. The U.S. Supreme Court has stopped the EPA from implementing the plan until courts determine whether it's constitutional. More than 27 states and industry groups, including the Seminole co-op and its trade association, have filed nearly 40 lawsuits challenging the rule. The EPA, the suits say, is trying to exercise powers it doesn't have to re-engineer the nation's power generation system. No less a liberal constitutional scholar than Harvard's Laurence Tribe has joined the fight against the CPP. Coping with climate change, he says, is vital but "does not justify using unconstitutional means."

Of course, even if the CPP goes into effect, it can be tweaked between now and 2030. The rules currently envision some kind of pollution-credit trading among states; it's conceivable that the trading could be extended to intra-state deals between, for example, FPL and the Seminole co-op, as long as Florida met its statewide goals. And it's conceivable the federal government might help rural co-ops pay for new plants that use non-coal sources.

Let's be clear. Coal is a dirty fuel. "Among all industrial sources of air pollution, none poses greater risks to human health and the environment than coal-fired power plants," reads a 2010 report by the Clean Air Task Force. Pollution from the Seminole plant and 14 other coal plants in Florida accounts for more than 300 deaths a year in the state, according to one estimate.

But market forces, energy conservation and existing regulations were already curbing the use of coal. Nationally, for example, electric generation from natural gas surpassed that from coal for the first time last year. And as renewable energy generation and storage technology improves, coal's share of the power generation pie is likely to decline further, with or without CPP. The Seminole co-op can be forgiven a sense of irony in all this.

The Putnam County facility was built as a coal plant in the first place because the federal government in the late 1970s wanted to lessen dependence on foreign oil and burn cheap, domestically available coal to keep electricity prices low for residents of rural areas served by co-ops.

Times change. It's hard not to wonder, however, about what unforeseen consequences our children may face from current policies implemented, as previously, with good intentions.

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