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Alaska Editorial: A way forward: Cheaper power, less pollution

Posted: October 13, 2012 - 11:07pm

This editorial first appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

A proposed agreement between Golden Valley Electric Association and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced last week would serve two goals. The long-dormant coal-fired power plant in Healy would begin supplying cheaper power to the Interior, and the combined air pollution produced by it and an older plant there would drop sharply during the decade following the restart.

Those are both worthy outcomes. The agreement, or something substantially similar, should be recommended to the U.S. District Court in Alaska by the U.S. Justice Department.

In the interest of obtaining cheaper, cleaner power, the agreement proposes to set aside a yearslong dispute about whether GVEA needs a new air quality permit before restarting the plant. That dispute went to federal court last week. Federal officials filed a complaint against GVEA and the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority alleging that their restart of the plant will violate the Clean Air Act. (AIDEA, a state agency, owns the plant but is planning to sell the plant to GVEA.)

The proposed agreement, called a “consent decree,” wouldn’t resolve that dispute but would set it aside. The consent decree was also filed with the court, but it must remain open for public comment for 30 days. At that point, assuming nothing comes up to derail the agreement, the federal government would ask the courts adopt the consent decree and dismiss the lawsuit against GVEA and AIDEA.

The consent decree comes with a substantial price tag for GVEA customers. Acheiving the pollution reductions it outlines will be expensive. However, GVEA officials believe ratepayers would still save money because the cooperative would avoid using more expensive oil to generate electricity.

The pollution reductions would be significant. For example, take the nitrogen oxide emissions, just one category of pollutant. Under the agreement, GVEA would install an ammonia or urea injection system to capture nitrogen oxides in the old plant’s emissions by Sept. 30, 2015, or within 18 months after restart of the new plant, whichever is later.

The allowable annual emissions of nitrogen oxides from the two plants after that point would be 1,239 tons to start. That limit would drop to 533 tons with the installation of a catalyst on the new plant. The catalyst converts nitrogen oxides and ammonia to simple nitrogen and water.

Then, in 2022, GVEA would decide either to install a similar catalyst on the old plant or just shut it down. If it installs a catalyst, the allowable nitrogen oxide tonnage would drop to 352 in 2024. If it retires the plant, the limit drops to 231 tons.

Environmental groups, which had wanted GVEA to obtain a new air quality permit with new pollution limits prior to restarting the plant, expressed satisfaction with the limits established in the consent decree.

GVEA officials said the pollution control work will cost about $40 million. That’s on top of the $50 million it will spend to buy the plant from AIDEA and the $20 million it will spend to address safety and operation issues.

Such expenses are painful to see, especially given the hundreds of millions already spent by the state and federal governments on building this plant.

More painful, though, are the fuel charges on our monthly bills. GVEA officials expect that even with the additional pollution controls, restarting the Healy plant will bring us much less expensive power than we now buy.

Less expensive power with cleaner air — that sounds like a solution that everyone can support.

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