Monday, May 21, 2012

Air Emissions and Electricity Generation at U.S. Power Plants -- GAO

Air Emissions and Electricity Generation at U.S. Power Plants (GAO-12-545R, Apr 18, 2012) found that "Older electricity generating units—those that began operating in or before 1978—provided 45 percent of electricity from fossil fuel units in 2010 but produced a disproportionate share of emissions, both in aggregate and per unit of electricity generated. Overall, in 2010 older units contributed 75 percent of sulfur dioxide emissions, 64 percent of nitrogen oxides emissions, and 54 percent of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel units. For each unit of electricity generated, older units collectively emitted about 3.6 times as much sulfur dioxide, 2.1 times as much nitrogen oxides, and 1.3 times as much carbon dioxide as newer units.

The difference in emissions between older units and their newer counterparts may be attributed to a number of factors. First, 93 percent of the electricity produced by older fossil fuel units in 2010 was generated by coal-fired units. Compared with natural gas units, coal-fired units produced over 90 times as much sulfur dioxide, twice as much carbon dioxide and over five times as much nitrogen oxides per unit of electricity, largely because coal contains more sulfur and carbon than natural gas.

Second, fewer older units have installed emissions controls, which reduce emissions by limiting their formation or capturing them after they are formed. Among coal-fired units—which produce nearly all sulfur dioxide emissions from electric power generation—approximately 26 percent of older units used controls for sulfur dioxide, compared with 63 percent of newer units. Controls for nitrogen oxide emissions were more common among all types of fossil fuel units, but these controls vary widely in their effectiveness. Among older units, 14 percent had installed selective catalytic reduction (SCR) equipment, the type of control capable of reducing the greatest amount of nitrogen oxides emissions, compared with 33 percent of newer units. In addition, approximately 38 percent of older units did not have any controls for nitrogen oxides, compared with 6 percent of newer units.

Third, lower emissions among newer units may be attributable in part to improvements in the efficiency with which newer units convert fuel into electricity. Nonetheless, older units remain an important part of the electricity generating sector, particularly in certain regions of the United States."

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