The realities of power and the power of reality

At the public hearing on the proposed nitrogen oxide (NOx) rules for utilities held on July 27, a carnival atmosphere pervaded. Most of this was due to the very effective organizing of the supporters of a proposed regulation to require utilities to remove 80 percent of the NOx from their emissions. A band was on hand, pizza was offered, prayers (compliments of the Sabbath Project) were said, and politicking was the order of the day.

The utility companies, on the other hand, mustered only their paid employees — who spoke in favor of the more modest 51-percent approach that, not surprisingly, was considerably weaker even than the middle-of-the-road 59 percent proposed by the Hunt administration.

The state Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ (DENR) Environmental Management Commission (EMC) was asked to hold five hearings around the state. The largest crowd turned out in Asheville (about 500 people), and my mental tally of speakers was about 50 for the 80-percent reduction and two or three against it. This was apparently the case at the other four meetings.

The hearing was about dirty air and what to do about one aspect of it. No shortage of viewpoints exists on the problem. People and organizations that have studied this issue include the Environmental Protection Agency, the Electric Power Research Institute, various universities, ad infinitum. At least when gauged by the weight of the reports, quite a bit of technical attention seems to have been focused on this issue. Those desiring action say they have all the information they need. Those avoiding regulation preach further delay and study. Each approach has its obvious benefits to its constituency.

The proponents of the stricter rules ranged from individuals opposed to “The Man” in any form, the physicians of Mission St. Joseph’s (who passed a resolution in favor of stricter regulations), mass-transit supporters, the WNC Alliance, asthma sufferers, the owner of a local tourist attraction, and a variety of individuals whose primary qualification was the desire to breathe cleaner air. They generally made the case that the causes of the dirty air are fairly well known and easily identified, that the technology exists to cure it, and that the economic impact of doing so is modest. All of this seems to be pretty much true.

Regarding the technology, a Durham, N.C., company — Cormetech Inc. — manufactures a product called a selective catalytic reduction filter (SCR), which can eliminate most of the NOx in power-plant exhaust. It works by injecting ammonia into the exhaust and passing it over a vanadium pentoxide catalyst — yielding water and free nitrogen, plus a relatively small amount of ammonia. Huge reductions in NOx result from this process, and the technology is old news in Europe. One down side is that the installation cost is between $50 and $70 per kilowatt, meaning that a typical power plant may require $50,000,000 worth of capital equipment. (While this sounds like a lot of money, in civil infrastructure terms it means that the cost of the proposed I-240 connector in Asheville could pay for four power plants’ SCRs — that’s right, folks, the cost of one bridge! And how many bridges do we have in North Carolina?) However, it also is a custom-designed product, requiring that the plant go “off line” during key parts of the installation. This off-line time can run several months, during which time the utilities have to buy their power from somewhere else and that can be very expensive.

Opposition to the 80-percent NOx reduction guidelines came entirely from the regulated entities — in this case, Duke Power and CP&L — and R.M. Swicegood of the Council of Independent Business Owners (CIBO). In the case of the paid advocates of minimal intervention, Duke and CP&L representatives stated that they had been doing a lot to clean up the air, and that more study was needed before the purchase of more expensive capital equipment. They also highlighted the potential for “downtime” of generating capacity during the installation of new filters that might exacerbate electricity availability — a legitimate, even if transient, reality.

Swicegood spoke about the need to regulate the real polluters. He made the suggestion that the upstream NOx sources — mostly the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), but also American Electric Power and the Southern Company — were the major culprits (fact) and needed to be addressed first, before we went off regulating the North Carolina utilities (opinion). He cited a number of facts from a local video that incessantly airs on Channel 2 of the local cable-TV system, called Breathing Troubled Air: A Prayer for the Mountains. In the video, North Carolina State University’s Dr. Bob Bruck comments that the major air-pollution problems originate across state lines (84 percent, to be exact). Swicegood offered the opinion that regulating the local sources of NOx without treating the out-of-state sources was inappropriate, a position with which most reasonable people agree. Of course, most reasonable people do not know that the TVA has 18 SCRs on order for its belching power plants. Duke has none on order. CP&L has only one on order, for its Roxboro Unit #4. So, with all due respect to Swicegood’s complaints about the TVA, the real facts appear to point to some very responsible behavior on their part. Also, Swicegood’s complaints fail to justify our unwillingness to help our downstream neighbors with their air problems.

An aside is in order: The TVA’s Paradise, Ky. power plant once was the number-one NOx polluter in America. After installing SCR technology on one boiler, they went from number one to number 103 — a rather significant move. That is how effective SCR technology is. TVA achieved 88-percent reduction at this facility. At others, up to 95 percent can be achieved.

Ample evidence exists that we all love CP&L and Duke Power. When we “80-percenters” were vocally exercising our righteous indignation at their supposedly economically influenced morals, we were doing so in an air-conditioned, 10,000-square-foot, artificially illuminated palace with microphones and a P.A. system powered by what John Prine famously called “Mr. Peabody’s coal mine” in Paradise, Ky. If we disliked them as much as rhetoric would indicate, I suspect that they would be out of business. They have made some pretty sizable investments in pollution-control technology, and should be praised for that — while we encourage them to do more. We should recognize, too, that — like most corporate citizens — they pretty much obey the law of the land, and if that law eventually dictates 80-percent reduction in NOx, they will surely comply to the best of their abilities. They are not force-feeding us electricity against our will. They are not evil, just because they are motivated by profit. That’s how we all live and why we can afford custom-made sandals, tie-dyed T-shirts, hand-made ceramic bongs, Gucci shoes, SUVs, mountain bikes, Subarus, BMWs, cooked food, and shopping at Earth Fare or Harris-Teeter late at night.

The utility companies are also operating in an environment that will eventually be deregulated. Right now, a public-utilities commission sets the rates they can charge and, thus, the amount of profit they can make. It’s a relic of the rural electrification efforts that were essential in the early years of the power-distribution infrastructure deployment. Soon, that regulated structure will be gone, and in its place will be the invisible hand of the marketplace. You will be able to choose your power vendor when you sign up, just like you can choose your own long-distance telephone carrier. The same power lines will exist, but your bill will come from a different place. In the coming deregulated environment, production costs will influence utility competitiveness. When folks get to choose, how many will choose cleaner air if it means another $10-$20 per year? Not many, I’m guessing. To paraphrase local songwriter David Wilcox, how many people chose to shop at East Asheville Hardware before they went to Lowe’s? We’re cheap critters, most of us, and East Asheville Hardware is now closed. Only time will tell how we respond.

So where does all this leave us in the search for cleaner air? First, the hearing was not about Us vs. Them. It was about expressing our desire for a more intense regulation of NOx emissions to the folks in a position to regulate it. In that effort, if we were not successful, then someone wasn’t listening. In five statewide meetings, the results were the same: We want more regulation and we say we are willing to pay to get it. The governor would have to be deaf, misinformed or disingenuous to ignore our mandate. We should find a new job for him if he does not listen up.

As we were all told during the hearing — in no uncertain terms — by the articulate and vocal Ms. Eva Ritchie, we each have personal impact and our individual actions can reduce dirty air. It’s a demand-driven problem, and it’s we who generate that demand. It’s not enough to demand regulation; we must regulate demand, and that does not require any action from Raleigh. Part of that equation means we have to work at understanding our personal impact. Turn off the television, walk to the library, read about energy production, examine your life, and try to make it a lower-impact one. Contrast this with watching Channel 2, driving the HUMVEE to the power plant and picketing a coal train. Which is more effective?

We must try to hit the issue harder, and not the people involved in it. Civilized debate demands that we make our feelings and needs known to the government that we empower, and that we avoid the temptation to demonize our opposition. The case for cleaner air is made every day we can’t see more than two miles ahead, and the voting booth is the best place to take definitive action for cleaner air. With only a single Charles Taylor campaign staffer silently skulking in the back of the auditorium during the hearing, we get a pretty good example of his idea of environmental leadership. This year, we have a chance to send a message to him in the form of his hopeful replacement — candidate Sam Neill –who was there, and who spoke in favor of a clean environment. Casting your vote for environmental stewardship will go a long way toward cleaning up the air.

We know that NOx pollution in conjunction with normal atmospheric precipitation — especially in sensitive, high-altitude areas — contributes to soil acidification, stream eutrophication and reduced invertebrate populations, and has cascading effects upward in the food chains. It is also implicated in the release of aluminum ions in high-ridge soils that are toxic to tree life, and reduced visibility. Lower visibility translates directly to lost jobs, not to mention reduced photosynthesis. Reduced photosynthesis translates into even weaker trees and reduced forest productivity. If reading this doesn’t convince you, drive to Mount Mitchell and look at all the dead trees for yourself. All of this is painfully documented in a variety of both completed and ongoing scientific studies, the results of which are ambiguous only to those who have not been able to think up excuses for why they themselves are not at fault!

There is no question that we have a problem, no argument about what is causing it, no doubt about how to solve it, and no scientific reason to delay doing what we know is right. There are no technical or economic reasons to delay, but plenty of moral reasons dictate that we act immediately and furiously to solve this problem.

Even our dirty neighbors upwind of here are cleaning up their act, despite having had to sue us to clean up the Pigeon River before we sent the pollution to Tennessee. If they can do it, so can we. Mr. Hunt and members of the EMC, you have heard our voices. Practice “golden-rule” government. Do the right thing and make 80-percent NOx reductions the law of the land.

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