Regulators Approve $90 Million Pollution Controls Despite Coal Phase-Out Plans | Science & Environment

Regulators have approved plans for three Wisconsin utilities to spend nearly $90 million on pollution controls needed to continue burning coal at a power plant scheduled to convert to natural gas.

Completed in 2011 at a cost of more than $2 billion, the Elm Road Generating Station in Oak Creek is jointly owned by We Energies, Madison Gas and Electric and WPPI Energy, a Sun Prairie-based co-operative that supplies electricity. electricity to 51 municipal utilities.

To comply with federal regulations, the plant needs a new treatment system to remove toxic metals from water discharged into Lake Michigan.

But since applying for the permit in February, We Energies has said it is phasing out coal and plans to convert the 1,268-megawatt plant to burn natural gas.

The $670 million plant in Beloit is Wisconsin’s newest gas-fired power plant and the second largest.

Gale Klappa, CEO of We Energies’ parent company, told investors last month that the utility had tested burning a mixture of coal and gas at the Elm Road plant and that over the next two years, it hopes to invest around $150 million in technology that would allow it to run on 30% gasoline.

People also read…

Klappa said the company’s coal consumption will be “immaterial” by the end of 2030.

Under Federal Environmental Protection Agency rules that went into effect in December, the new treatment system must be in place by the end of 2023 as long as any coal is burned.

Designed to reduce arsenic, mercury, selenium and nitrates released into the lake, the treatment system would use micro-organisms to digest organic matter in the wastewater, forming a sludge which can then be filtered and put into dump.

The state’s Public Service Commission approved the investment on the condition that the utilities submit an annual report including any additional investment associated with burning natural gas at the plant.

While supporting tougher pollution regulations, Clean Wisconsin argues that it’s a mistake to spend more money on equipment that will be obsolete in just 12 years.

“Coal-fired power plants stopped being a good investment a long time ago,” the group wrote. “(I) it makes no sense to pour even more taxpayer dollars into coal production when the market and applicable climate policies … dictate to move away from coal as soon as possible.”

Clean Wisconsin also suggested that utilities could have installed the upgrade when the rule went into effect nearly five years ago, “which would have provided better environmental protection for the high price of upgrades.” level”.

The Citizens Utility Board has acknowledged the treatment scheme is a reasonable approach to complying with the law, but is ‘somewhat troubled’ by the announcement of fuel switch plans and has asked regulators to explore the impact of the phasing out of coal on the economics of the project.

We Energies spokesman Brendan Conway said the project must meet “near-term federal regulations” on generators that “will continue to serve our customers reliably for decades.”

Earlier this year, regulators allowed MGE and Alliant Energy to install a $19.2 million ash handling system at the Columbia Energy Center, which is expected to be removed by the end of 2024. The system, designed to prevent toxic chemicals from seeping into groundwater, was necessary. to comply with another EPA rule.

Nonetheless, Alliant says replacing the plant with solar generating resources and other renewable energy sources will save customers some $250 million in avoided repair and maintenance costs.

James V. Hayes