Possible shutdown of third unit at power plant on the table

Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) Secretary Collin O’Mara announced on Wednesday, Feb. 3, that DNREC was evaluating a potential agreement with NRG that would shut down a third coal-fired electrical generating unit (Unit 3) from the Indian River Power Plant, leaving only the facility’s newest, largest and lowest-emission unit to remain in operation.

DNREC will host a community meeting on Thursday, Feb. 11, at 7 p.m. at the Millsboro Fire Company Banquet Hall to provide an overview of the proposal and receive public feedback.

Indian River currently operates four coal-fired units. Under a consent decree reached with DNREC in 2007, NRG agreed to shut down its two oldest units in 2010 and 2011, and to install air pollution controls on Units 3 and 4 by the end of 2011 to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and mercury.

Under the proposal being evaluated, Unit 3 would operate through 2013, at which time it will be shut down permanently, rather than undergoing installation of pollution controls and continue to operate for decades.

“Gov. [Jack] Markell made it clear that restoring the Inland Bays and reducing risks to public health are important to improving our state’s environment and its economy. This potential agreement could further each of those goals,” said O’Mara. “Beyond the emissions reductions from these three pollutants, the proposed agreement virtually eliminates the use of water and impacts on our fisheries from the facility’s cooling water intake. It dramatically reduces the amount of fly ash produced from coal combustion and significantly cuts greenhouse gas emissions.”

NRG’s Northeast Regional President Drew Murphy explained that the idea came up fairly recently, in conversations with the department while finalizing permits for Unit 3 and Unit 4.

“The idea of potentially doing something different came up last fall. In the context of that,” explained Murphy of the finalizing of permits on Unit 3 and Unit 4, and the cooling towers discussions, “They asked about other options to try to address air emissions reductions, water use, etc.”

The facility would continue plans to shut down Units 1 and 2 by 2011 and place controls on Unit 4, its largest, by the end of 2011. That project will cost approximately $360 million and create up to 350 construction jobs over two years, some as early as this year. No permanent jobs are expected to be lost as a result of the shutdown because of attrition, retraining and redeployment.

Murphy added that one of the advantages of having a fair amount of time to plan is being able to address their workforce needs.

“In the next four years, they’ll be a normal amount of retirement and attrition, and we also really hope to look to retrain and redeploy good workers,” said Murphy. “If that’s in the offshore wind area, that would be great.”

After extensive review by the experts who operate the regional electrical grid, analysis showed that the unit shutdown can be achieved without compromising the reliability of the electrical system and without additional costs to rate-payers.

Further, reductions in energy demand and additional renewable energy generation, including NRG/Bluewater Wind’s planned offshore wind project off the coast of Rehoboth Beach, will further mitigate any long term impacts. NRG entered the offshore wind business when they acquired Bluewater Wind from Babcock and Brown and Acadia Windpower in November of 2009 for an undisclosed sum.

The change in the plans for Unit 3 met with a positive response from environmentalists this week.

“Shutting down Unit 3 down is far preferable to building cooling towers for it,” said Alan Muller of Green Delaware, “because-among many reasons: (1) cooling towers reduce but don’t eliminate harmful cooling impacts, (2) a large investment in the unit would create incentives to keep it running for many years, and (3) shutdown is the only practical way to deal with greenhouse gas emissions from coal burning.”

However, Muller noted that the announcement described a “potential agreement.”

“The devil is in the details, and we don’t know what undesirable features might be in the deal. So at this point we can only say that it sounds very promising,” he said.

Recently, DNREC has been updating the facility’s permit that allows the intake of water from Indian River for cooling and the discharge of that water to the river and evaluating options that would reduce the amount of water needed, including a closed cycle cooling water structure to service Unit 3. Unit 4 is already equipped with a cooling water structure.

Similarly, the department has been scrutinizing the disposal and containment of fly ash at the facility. A permit was recently issued requiring a state-of-the-art landfill to be constructed and mitigation measures are being implemented to contain an older fly-ash disposal area. NRG also recently agreed to install monitors to evaluate any airborne fly-ash particles.

NRG’s Murphy added that the proposal also delivers improvements beyond Delaware’s State Implementation Program (SIP) requirements across a number of emissions and advances the state’s overall climate change goals.

“When we looked at options, we concluded that the best course — and the one that allows NRG to keep a significant presence in Delaware while markedly decreasing our environmental footprint in both water use and emissions — is to permanently shut down Unit 3 after a slightly extended operating period,” said Murphy. “Our commitment to Indian River and Delaware builds on our previous investments in environmental controls that significantly reduced emissions. This plan also enables NRG to focus more resources on clean energy including offshore wind and solar, renewable bio-fuels, and energy-related innovations such as electric vehicles ecosystems.”

The news of the potential agreement sat well with community advocacy groups such as the Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) to the Center for Inland Bays, even though it came as a bit of shock.

The CAC has been instrumental in advocating best practices for cooling towers and supported House Concurrent Resolution 7, which promoted closed cycle cooling systems in order to prevent massive fish and crab kills. That language in that resolution was ultimately watered down, but CAC members expressed that there had been progress made and communication started regardless. The CAC has also been vocal in urging a timetable for coal-ash mitigation concerning the Phase 1 landfill at Indian River.

“Kudos to DNREC for the good news,” said CAC Secretary Ron Wuslich. “While we were hopeful that NRG would be required to retrofit Unit 3 with a cooling tower, it never crossed my mind that an ultimate solution would be to shut down [Unit] 3 by a specific date.”

Wuslich, an avid fisherman and retired oil executive who divides his time between the inland bays and the waters of Florida, added, “Our inland bays are deserving of such a decision. The bay food chain, the fishermen, the clammers and local small businesses will all benefit from this decision.”

The community meeting, hosted by DNREC, will be held on Thursday, Feb. 11, at 7 p.m. at the Millsboro Fire Company Banquet Hall to provide an overview of the proposal and receive public feedback.

Expected environmental benefits of the shutdown include:

• Elimination of between 30 and 40 billion gallons of cooling water drawn annually from Indian River;

• Elimination of annual kills of aquatic life including hundreds of thousands blue crabs, millions of bay anchovy, and hundreds of thousands of Atlantic menhaden, Atlantic croaker, winter flounder and weakfish;

• Reduction by about 1,173 tons annually of nitrogen oxide and 6,252 tons of sulfur dioxide;

• Elimination of 837,000 tons annually of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide;

• Reduction in annual fly ash production of between 40,000 and 70,000 tons; and

• Reduction of mercury emissions by five pounds annually.

Over an expected operational life of at least 30 years, the shutdown is anticipated to achieve the following percentage reductions over and above what the 2007 agreement would have achieved:

• 81 percent reduction of nitrogen oxide;

• 49 percent reduction of sulfur dioxide;

• 93 percent reduction of carbon dioxide;

• 93 percent reduction of mercury;

• 65 percent reduction in water use (assuming a cooling-tower would be implemented in 2015);

• 93 percent reduction of particulate matter emissions; and

• 97 percent reduction in land-filled materials, including fly ash.