Power's down? Generator pollution targeted

This is one for the annals of unintended consequences.

One way the electricity powers-that-be have been addressing the huge demand on hot summer days is to institute programs where companies and other large users get a financial break for agreeing to power down.

It's called "demand response," and in my workplace, it has meant watching the lights dim and feeling a tad warmer than usual on a hot summer afternoon.

But in other places that have more precise power needs, it involves revving up the emergency power generator.

Fine, except that often these are old diesel machines that spew out plenty of pollution.

Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took steps to limit that pollution, finalizing new rules on these and other stationary generators.

According to an EPA fact sheet on the final rule: In 2015, emergency engines will be required to use cleaner fuel -- ultra low sulfur diesel -- if they operate, or commit to operate, for more than 15 hours annually as part of blackout and brownout prevention.

The EPA says that switching to cleaner fuel will reduce emissions of hazardous air pollutants, particulate matter and sulfur dioxide. "Our information shows that only a small percentage of emergency engines currently use ULSD fuel. This will result in lower emissions," the agency said.

Then, starting in 2015, entities with 100 horsepower or larger engines that operate, or commit to operate, for more than 15 hours and up to 100 hours per year for emergency demand response will need to collect and submit an annual report including location, dates and times of operation, the EPA said.

Overall, the rules target more than a million of these and similar generators -- so-called stationary engines -- that generate electricity and power equipment at industrial, agricultural, oil and gas production, power generation and other facilities.

Dirty diesel engines at natural gas drilling sites in Pennsylvania have been a concern of air quality groups.

Environmental groups did not give the agency high marks for the new rule.

Both the Sierra Club and Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future said the rule "prioritizes pollution over people," allowing generators to expand their hours of operation without installing better pollution controls.

“Public health suffered a serious blow today with these loopholes for dirty diesel and gas generators. Although EPA made some progress by cutting back on some of the loopholes they initially proposed and tightening up reporting and cleaner fuel requirements, this rule still represents an enormous gift to polluters at the public’s expense,” said Christina Simeone, director of the PennFuture Energy Center, in a press release.

“Pollution that harms our families and our communities, whether from a small local generator or a major plant, should be treated equally under the law," said Liz Perera a senior policy analyst at the Sierra Club. "Don't tell mothers that the only way to ensure a stable electric supply is to put their kids’ health in danger."

S. William Becker, Executive Director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies said that the new regs “are an important step forward." But while his association's members are pleased that "the rule includes two important features—ultra low sulfur diesel fuel and a robust reporting program to obtain critical information about the universe of these sources and their emissions—we believe much more needs to be done."

For example, he said, "many of these high polluting engines are decades old—some have been around for over a half century—and should be either retrofitted or replaced with newer, cleaner units. In addition, while the new rule focuses on reducing particulates and sulfur dioxides, it does little to control nitrogen oxides, which lead to the formation of ozone, fine particulates, visibility impairment, eutrophication of waterways, and other important environmental problems.”

The EPA said in a press release that, compared to a similar rule originally proposed in 2010, the new rule will reduce capital costs by $287 million and annual costs by $139 million, but still reduce air pollutants significantly.

Pollution emitted from the engines can cause cancer and aggravate respiratory and cardiovascular disease. It can affect neurological, cardiovascular, liver, kidney, immune and reproductive systems.

The agency estimates the updated standards will lead to as much as $2.1 billion in health benefits.