Midwestern Coal Power North America's Worst Air Polluter

MONTREAL, Quebec, Canada, January 13, 2005 (ENS) - A small number of North America's coal fired power plants release much of the electricity sector's sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, mercury and carbon dioxide emissions, according to a new study issued by a commission of the North American Free Trade Agreement. The report is intended as a first step towards the possible development of a shared emissions inventory for North America.

The Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) Tuesday published the first comparability report on emissions data from over 1,000 individual fossil fuel power plants in Canada, Mexico and the United States.

The report, "North American Power Plant Air Emissions," compiles publicly available data from only one year - 2002. It shows that each nation has a unique mix of fuels and technologies to produce electricity.


Ontario's coal fired Lakeview power plant emits more sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon dioxide, and mercury than most other Canadian plants. (Photo by Karen Smith courtesy Ontario Clean Air Alliance)
The United States generates half of its electricity from coal, while Mexico only gets about eight percent of its electricity from coal, instead generating more than two-thirds of its power from oil and natural gas. By contrast, Canada produces the largest share of its electricity from hydropower.

"This report shows that, site by site, coal fired power plants are the dominant source of harmful air emissions from the electricity sector in North America," says William Kennedy, executive director of the CEC.

These emissions are known to contribute to acid rain, haze, smog, and climate change, as well as toxic mercury found in fish and eaten by people, the CEC said.

While coal combustion accounts for only 44 percent of electricity on the continent, it is responsible for 86 percent of total sulfur dioxide emissions from electricity and 90 percent of nitrogen oxides.

The vast majority of mercury emissions from electricity generation in each country also come from coal combustion.

Individual power plants vary widely in their emissions performance, the data show. The biggest sources of air pollution are clustered in the midwestern and southeastern United States, along with some large oil and coal plants in Mexico.

"Only a relatively few big power plants use modern pollution control equipment for some of these pollutants," says Paul J. Miller, the report's co-author and the CEC's Program coordinator for air quality.

"For example, there is tremendous potential to use technology to make further reductions in sulfur dioxide emissions, linked to fine particulate matter, and nitrogen oxides, linked to smog," Miller said.


Georgia Power's Bowen plant emits more sulfur dioxide than any other facility in North America. (Photo courtesy Industcards)
The coal fired Bowen power plant, owned and operated by Georgia Power, was rated the highest emitter of sulfur dioxide of any plant in the study. Located less than an hour from downtown Atlanta, the same plant was rated as the dirtiest power plant in the three country region by the CEC in a 1998 report.

The Bowen plant emitted 154,000 tons of sulfur dioxide (SO2) in 2001, and while the plant's SO2 emissions declined a bit to 145,763 tons in 2002, it still tops the list of sulfur dioxide polluters.

The Bowen plant did somewhat better on its nitrogen oxide emissions, coming in 14th on the list. The Cumberland power plant in Tennessee was first.

Of the top ten SO2 polluters in the United States, four were in Ohio, three in Pennsylvania, and one each in Alabama, Georgia and Indiana.

In Canada, the top SO2 polluter is the coal fired Nanticoke power plant in Ontario, which emitted 86,710 tons of the acid rain forming gas. Nanticoke also topped the list of nitrogen oxide polluters.

In Mexico, the top SO2 emitting plant is fueled with oil. The C.T. PDTE. A. López Mateos (Tuxpan) plant in Veracruz emitted 253,430 tons of sulfur dioxide in 2002. The same plant also tops the carbon dioxide emissions list.

The worst mercury polluter is the Monticello coal fired power plant in Texas.

With respect to carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas linked to global warming, Miller says that data revels that U.S. fossil fuel power plants emit 39 percent of the region's total, while Mexican plants contribute 30 percent, and Canadian plants contribute only 22 percent.

The same Bowen power plant that tops the SO2 emissions list also ranks as the top carbon dioxide polluter, emitting 19,968,520 metric tons of the heat trapping greenhouse gas in 2002.


Mexico's Olachea power plant in San Carlos is fueled by heavy oil and operated by the Federal Electricity Commission. (Photo courtesy Industcards)
"The report is a snapshot of the air pollution and power generation relationship in North America, but we should recognize that many companies have already acted to reduce their environmental footprint," says Kennedy of the data which reflects the situation in 2002.

"In fact," Kennedy said, "a number of power plants are currently installing new technologies to reduce pollution and this report helps set a North American benchmark with which we can show their environmental achievements over time."

Kennedy points out in his introduction to the report that a number of progressive companies have developed comprehensive emissions management strategies such as switching their fuel source from coal to natural gas; or expanding their wind, solar or geothermal power business.

Some companies are employing technological innovation that either reduces emissions or improves generating efficiency or both.

"Consortia of companies, like the Canadian Clean Power Coalition or the Clean Energy Group in the United States, are coming together to promote the production and use of alternate or renewable energy sources," he writes.

Other companies are partnering with counterparts in developing countries to create Clean Development Mechanisms under the Kyoto Protocol that will help to address the threat of global warming.

Kennedy acknowleges several states and provinces that have set in place or are contemplating firm commitments to significantly reduce mercury emissions at coal power plants in the next several years - Alberta, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Wisconsin.