Orlando's government-owned electric utility has been prepared for several years to spend about $100 million to reduce its power-plant pollution, which might affect the air as far away as Texas. But it hasn't started to sign checks yet because of ongoing court battles and uncertainty over federal regulations.
Just last week, the Orlando Utilities Commission unveiled its five-year spending plan, which allocates $104 million for the purchase and installation of a "selective catalytic reduction" system.
The name sounds like technical gibberish, but an SCR's job is straightforward: prevent the release of chemicals into the air that contribute to the formation of lung-damaging smog. The massive system would be retrofitted to OUC's oldest coal-burning generator in east Orange County.
Utility executives say they are committed to the upgrade — even though OUC is using less coal currently because of the declining price of natural gas —but that they aren't rushing into it because they don't want to be blindsided by last-minute and potentially costly changes in federal regulations because of ongoing court fights and rule rewrites.
One of the nation's most visible advocates for strengthening clean-air regulations, the Natural Resources Defense Council, doesn't find fault with OUC's reluctance.
"At this point, any caution or waiting on their part is probably smart," said John Walke, NRDC's clean-air director.
At issue are sweeping regulations proposed by theU.S. Environmental Protection Agencyto reduce power-plant emissions that, by drifting long distances in the atmosphere, add to already unhealthy levels of ozone, smog and fine-particle pollution in other states.
The federal agency attempted several years ago to rein in those pollutants through the Clean Air Interstate Rule. A court decision in 2008 allowed that rule's requirements to remain in place temporarily but ordered EPA to develop yet another rule that does a better job of carrying out those requirements.
That new rule, the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, was to take effect this year in the Eastern U.S., but challenges by industry and states brought yet another court-ordered delay. Participants in that court action expect a key ruling soon.
"We strongly support the cross-state rule," Walke said. "It's one of the rules under the Clean Air Act that is projected to save as many lives as nearly any rule ever adopted by EPA. Under full implementation, it's projected to save up to 34,000 lives a year by reducing deadly soot pollution that causes heart attacks and strokes."
The American Lung Association is also calling for swift implementation of the air-pollution rule, saying it will save lives and prevent breathing-related illnesses.
"It's astonishing to people sometimes how far pollution can blow," said Janice Nolen, the association's assistant vice president of national policy and advocacy. "No matter how much some states want to clean up their air, and a lot of states do, they can't because of the pollution coming across their line. This really is a problem that needs to be addressed with a cross-state rule."
According to an EPA analysis, the cross-state rule would improve Florida's air quality enough to prevent 1,500 premature deaths a year.
The agency also expects that reduced air-pollution from Florida power plants as required by the cross-state rule would contribute to improved air quality in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas.
Texas officials have criticized the pending EPA rule as a job killer that would shut down power plants and trigger rolling blackouts.
Even Florida officials have questioned EPA's assertion that the cross-state rule would, for example, have a "significant impact on Houston's air quality," given that Florida has already substantially reduced its emissions of smog ingredients.
Of more than 30 coal-fired plants in Florida, about half have SCR units, which filter out nitrogen-related chemicals that interact with sunlight and other chemicals to create noxious smog.
An SCR system works by spraying ammonia into a power plant's exhaust and venting the exhaust through a catalytic converter to turn smog's ingredients — nitrogen oxides — into nitrogen and water.
Many of the coal-fired Florida plants still operating without SCR systems are slated for shutdown, are small units or use other, less-effective pollution controls.
The OUC plant on tap for SCR installation is the 25-year-old Unit 1 at the utility's Curtis H. Stanton Energy Center in east Orange.
Stanton Energy Center Unit 2 was equipped with an SCR unit when it was first put into service in 1996.
"We absolutely see the need to install SCR at Unit 1," said Jan Aspuru, OUC's vice president for power generation. "We've planned for it and we have it on our rate path. We are just hoping for clarity from the courts and EPA on what the rule requires."
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