For as much credit as it deserves for being the fuel that ignited the industrial revolution, the inherent inefficiencies of coal make it much less practical as a source of power today. In its journey from the mines to the turbines, coal requires a massive amount of energy to procure, transport and burn; it’s a self-defeating cycle that is increasingly falling out of favor with power companies as they slowly shift to more efficient resources in response to federal mandates.
At Alabama Power, which controls 77 power-generating units around the state, only seven are still powered by coal. Two are at Plant Barry in Mobile County. That number has fallen from 23 coal-fired units since the company began complying with the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), effective in 2016. Picking up the slack has been natural gas, which optimally emits 50 to 60 percent less carbon dioxide than coal, according to the National Energy Technology Laboratory.
Natural gas is also cheaper, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), whose Annual Energy Outlook suggests if developed today, coal-fired power generation can cost four to five times as much as units powered by natural gas.
But in Mobile and around the state, coal and power production remains a big business. The EIA reported that in 2018, Mobile was the largest port of entry for U.S. coal imports by volume and the fourth-largest port for coal exports. Alabama ranks sixth among the states in electricity net generation, about one-third of which is delivered to neighboring states.
Still, the state’s reliance on coal has decreased recently, with Alabama Power burning a high of 4.9 million tons of coal in 2005, compared to a low of 1.6 million tons in 2017. Consequently, as recently as 2016, Alabama ranked 15th among the states in total carbon dioxide emissions at 115.7 million metric tons.
Other EIA reports indicate Alabama currently ranks 19th among the states in the average retail price of electricity to the residential sector at 13.36 cents per kilowatt hour. Idaho, Washington and Louisiana all sell electricity to residents for less than 10 cents per kilowatt hour, but prices go as high as 34.45 cents per kilowatt hour in Hawaii.
But aside from the costs, the future of coal in power generation faces larger challenges. MATS is just one of many environmental compliance programs Alabama Power must adhere to. The EPA also enforces greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act, plus a program called the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule that regulates particulate emissions that have the tendency to cross state lines. The EPA’s recent Coal Combustion Residuals (CCR) Rule, as Lagniappe has reported on heavily in this series, regulates groundwater standards at ash ponds, sites where waste products from coal-fired power generation are stockpiled and when stored improperly, can lead to significant, long-lasting groundwater pollution.
Coal itself — formed over millions of years of geology after peat and other vegetation is exposed to high temperature and pressure — is primarily a carbon-based rock that metamorphosizes into several different forms with varying amounts of other elements. From a low quality rock known as lignite to its highest-quality form in anthracite, coal also has different uses based on its geologic qualities.
Most frequently used in power production is sub-bituminous coal. It’s found all over the world, but according to a 2012 video filmed by the Mobile Area Education Foundation and broadcast on Alabama Public Television, Alabama Power gets the majority of its sub-bituminous coal from Columbia. Other sources are within the state itself and there are also mines in Colorado.
In the video, an Alabama Power employee explained how different forms of coal have different BTU values and at the time, the company was competing with the Chinese iron industry for cheap coal, which can also be used to recycle iron.
“We have to go to different sources to get a little bit dirtier of a coal to generate electricity with because we don’t need it as clean as China would need it to recycle metal,” he said. “We try to buy the cheapest coal we can to make the prices of electricity stay as low as we can.”
Wherever those sources may be, the coal eventually makes its way to Alabama Power facilities by way of ship, barge and rail, where the utility attempts to maintain a 45-day supply by storing hundreds of thousands of tons on-site. From those storage piles, the coal is transported into the power plants via a conveyor belt, where it is pulverized into a fine powder, sent through a blower to a boiler where it’s mixed with air to heat up water, which turns to steam to power a turbine in the generator, creating electricity, which is transmitted throughout the system.
Burning the powdered coal creates its own byproducts. In the air it’s carbon monoxide, the primary greenhouse gas; sulphur dioxide, which produces acid rain; nitrogen oxide, which has been linked to smog and respiratory ailments; and mercury and other heavy metals, which have been linked to both neurological and developmental damage, according to the EIA.
In response to MATS and other environmental mandates, Alabama Power has spent $4 billion to improve the quality of its air emissions statewide. Since 1996, the company claims to have reduced emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides by 98 percent and 89 percent, respectively. But part of that process, carbon capture, produces its own byproducts: gypsum and baghouse ash.
The primary solid waste, lightweight fly ash, joins heavy bottom ash, boiler slag, flue gas emission control residuals and other regulatory permitted, low-volume wastes in an effluent pipe, where it is pumped to a series of impoundments to eventually settle in a larger pond. At Plant Barry, Alabama Power has accumulated 21 million tons of solid waste in a 600-acre pond since the pond was constructed in 1965.
There, as Lagniappe has previously reported, the ash has leached detectable levels of elements including arsenic, barium, calcium, chromium, cobalt and molybdenum from the unlined pond, for which the company has been fined by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM). Alabama Power plans to drain that pond and “cap” the remaining coal ash in place, although environmental groups fear the leaching of toxins will continue. So far Alabama Power has completed one cap-in-place closing of an ash pond in the state near Gadsden, and in May the company was fined by ADEM because the pond is still leaching toxins into the local groundwater.
More recently, Dr. Wladimir Wertelecki, a research professor trained in pediatrics and former chair of the department of medical genetics at the University of South Alabama, has also raised concerns about the radioactivity of coal ash.
Wertelecki, who has also researched residual radiation at Chernobyl as a part of his role as the director of OMNI-Net programs in Ukraine, claims coal ash “can be” more radioactive than nuclear waste.
“Coal ash is a concentrate of heavy metals, including uranium, which is naturally radioactive,” he explained in a video posted to YouTube last year. “Uranium radioactivity lasts forever. There is no safe dose of exposure to radioactivity.”
While the radioactivity at Plant Barry’s pond is not measured, Wertelecki said different sources of coal produce different degrees of radioactivity in ash. When burned, the radioactivity does not go away, it becomes a concentrate.
“Think of the radiation through coal like the four horses of the apocalypse,” he said. “Carbon radioactive, uranium radioactive, thorium radioactive and radium radioactive … radioactive elements attach to chromosomes similar to a sugar, but at some point, they may explode, releasing energy and killing the cell.”
Wertelecki argues the company’s plan to dewater the ash, consolidate and cap it in place is not a solution to radiation; “it’s a patch.”
But Alabama Power argues, with its “strong record of working to protect the environment,” the “EPA determined that both methods — close in place and close by removal — can be equally protective.” There are further risks by removing the ash, they claim, including at least a 15-year process of trucking the material through communities, “raising the risk of road accidents, impact to road infrastructure and related costs, as well as issues of traffic and noise.”
But comparing Alabama Power’s plan at Plant Barry to the New Safe Confinement sarcophagus at Chernobyl, Wertelecki suggests the utility should remove the ash to an inland, lined landfill for a permanent solution.
“They can afford it, they know how to do it. The question is whether they will develop good will toward all of us,” he said.
Editor’s note: This article originally stated Alabama Power currently has 10 coal-fired generators across the state. The correct number is seven.
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