By Jim Bleyer
The Tampa Electric Company is playing a high-stakes shell game with the health and lives of the three million people who reside in the Tampa metropolitan area.
Hillsborough County has the most polluted air in Florida, according to the recently released American Lung Association “State of the Air 2019” report and will continue to worsen if TECO gets its way.
Of the state’s 67 counties, Hillsborough scored a “D” for high ozone days during the most recent reporting period (2015-17). The highest risk groups—those under 18 and over 65 comprise 37 percent of the county’s population.
The company wants to convert part of its Apollo Beach electric plant from coal to methane gas but the local Sierra Club labeled the plan low-cost subterfuge for continuing its polluting ways.
Kent Bailey, chair of the Tampa Bay Sierra Club observed:
“The plan TECO has brought forward is to replace an aging coal fired plant with a new gas fired plant, which, of course, will be running on fracked gas. They have put out a press release that said by 2023 they’ll be burning almost no coal but what TECO didn’t say is that, the reason that they’ll be burning so little coal in 2023, is because Big Bend units 3 and 4, which burn coal also, will be temporarily off line to be refurbished and upgraded.”
When those units are brought back they will continue to burn coal, according to Bailey. He asserted that TECO’s 10-year plan filed with the Florida Public Service Commission projects that in 2028 coal burning will exceed the coal burned this year.
The Florida Cabinet is scheduled to vote on the TECO proposal at its July 25 meeting.
The Sierra Club and other environmental groups want TECO to convert to solar energy generation instead. Florida Power and Light is building the world’s largest solar powered battery bank, just 40 miles from Apollo Beach so the conversion is well within the realm of possibility.
Coal is the least efficient of the fossil fuels in terms of the amount of energy gained vs. CO2 released. Burning it also releases numerous toxic chemicals and particulates, which can exact a cost on a country’s population in terms of reduced life expectancy and increased health costs.
Coal combustion releases nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, mercury, and other substances known to be hazardous to human health.
Coal-fired power plants that sell electricity to the grid produce more hazardous air pollution in the U.S. than any other industrial pollution sources, according to the Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Clean Air Task Force. More than 386,000 tons of air pollutants are emitted from over 400 plants in the U.S. per year. Interestingly, while most of the power plants are located in the Midwest and Southeast, the entire nation is threatened by toxic emissions.
While pollutants such as acid gases stay in the local area, metals such as lead and arsenic travel beyond state lines, and fine particulate matter has a global impact. Particle pollution from power plants is estimated to kill approximately 13,000 people a year.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, in an average year, a typical coal plant (500 megawatts) generates the following air pollutants in copious amounts: carbon dioxide, hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, lead, and more.
Coal ash, the hazardous waste that remains after coal is burned, can also contain: chromium, selenium, and boron which can cause a bevy of health issues: stomach ulcers, anemia, stomach and lung cancers, impaired vision, paralysis, and damage to vital organs.
Aging coal plants “grandfathered” in after passage of the Clean Air Act have been particularly linked to large quantities of harmful emissions.
There is good news for most of the country, however.
In April, the coal industry’s energy generation plummeted to its lowest level since 1979, according to Energy Information Administration. Renewable energy production outpaced coal in April, said a report from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.
For April, renewable energy is predicted to produce 2.322 million megawatt-hours per day compared to coal’s expected output of 1.997 million megawatt-hours.
It constitutes a fundamental disruption happening across the electric generation sector. The problem is that this progress occurs elsewhere, not in Hillsborough County.
Five years ago this never would have been close to happening,” Dennis Wamstead, research analyst at IEEFA, told CNN. “The transition that’s going on in the electric sector in the United States has been phenomenal.”
Seasonal factors come into play, Wamstead wrote in the report. For example, some coal plants are taken offline during fall and spring due to lower demand. This allows companies to perform maintenance and upgrades to prepare for seasons with higher demand, like summer and winter.
Wamstead predicts that solar and wind generation will start to outpace coal more frequently, as has been the case with natural gas. In 2016, natural gas outpaced coal to become the U.S.’s top power source.
Wamstead obviously did not have TECO in mind.