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Curbs on coal power plant could spike bills, utilities say

Published:   |   Updated: June 16, 2014 at 04:15 PM

Executives of two electric utilities serving the Suncoast say newly proposed regulations for coal-fired power plants could raise electric bills.

Coal-fired generating plants would have to reduce emissions by up to one-third, according to a proposal from the federal Environmental Protection Agency. EPA is seeking public comments for the next few months.

While it could take years before a decision is made, executives at Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative and Duke Energy in Florida are bracing for the worst if it happens. Customers most likely would wind up paying for any extra costs passed through by utilities.

David Lambert, WREC member relations manager, and Sterling Ivey, a senior communications specialist at Duke Energy’s St. Petersburg regional headquarters, insist they will refrain from the hyperbole that already has sprung up around the controversial EPA concept.

Last week, full-page newspaper ads bore the headline: “What would you call a radical organization that threatens to shut down 25 percent of our electric grid? Anarchist? Militia? Terrorist? Obama’s EPA.”

The Environmental Policy Alliance, which placed the ads, challenges environmental activitist groups and government regulators.

“We’re not going to get (down) into the weeds” of debate and slurs, Lambert said when asked about the ad..

“It certainly will have an impact on rates,” Lambert said about the EPA goals, if formally adopted.

Many of WREC’s 219,000 members rely on power from two coal-fired generators Seminole Electric Cooperative operates in Palatka, in Putnam County, Lambert explained. WREC is one of nine distribution co-ops that belong to Tampa-based Seminole Electric.

“It’s one of the cleanest” coal plants in the country, Lambert emphasized. Seminole invested some $250 million in pollution control upgrades at the 30-year-old Palatka plant in recent years.

The EPA plan would require “carbon capture and sequestration,” Lambert said. Utilities would capture carbon to pump it into the ground or some other storage system rather than let it escape from smokestacks.

Unfortunately, there is no “proven” carbon capture technology Lambert said. Several test plants around the country are tracking results.

Executives have decided it’s not worth trying to convert a coal generating station to oil or natural gas, Lambert added. “We’d have to tear it down and start from scratch.”

Natural gas poses its own risks, Lambert noted. Seminole uses natural gas to fuel its Midulla Generating Station, in Hardee County. Prices for gas traditionally have been very volatile, Lambert said. A hurricane in the Gulf would close down many production facilities of natural gas suppliers.

“We don’t know what EPA is going to do on fracking,” Lambert said about using a mix of water and chemicals to force natural gas out of the ground. Opponents say fracking can contaminates groundwater.

Duke Energy’s Ivey said the company has turned predominantly to natural gas for most of its plants. Natural gas prices have held steady near historic lows because of higher production in recent years.

“If Mother Nature gives us something to do,” Ivey remarked, then natural gas prices could zoom up, he concedes.

Duke still has four coal-fired units in Crystal River. Duke plans to retire the two oldest units by 2018.

So EPA rules likely would affect only a few Duke plants, Ivey concluded.

Even utility executives are still digesting the 100-plus pages in the EPA proposal, Ivey cautioned. “Better than a novel,” Ivey said with a chuckle.

So nobody has calculated any dollar amounts from possible changes at this early stage of the debate, Ivey pointed out.

“Put this in a perspective,” Ivey said. The proposed EPA rule will not be finalized until 2015. Then Florida environmental regulators would have to submit a plan to enact the changes by 2017.