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Ruled out

Science | Some coal-fired plants close due to new EPA regulations, others consider natural gas

Issue: "Upside down," April 9, 2011

On the same March day that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed over 900 pages of rules limiting the emission of dozens of pollutants from power plants, Atlanta-based Georgia Power announced plans to close two of its coal-fired electric generation units. Company president Paul Bowers said in a statement that the decision followed "an extensive analysis of the cost to comply with environmental regulations."

Utilities have long anticipated the EPA rules, the first federal standards for the amount of mercury, arsenic, acid gases, and other toxins that coal- and oil-powered plants can release into the air. Some of the toxins have been linked to cancer, and mercury is known to cause neurological problems in children. The federal agency claims the standards will save $140 billion in health costs by 2016, in part due to fewer respiratory problems, heart attacks, premature deaths, and missed work days.

But not without other costs: Although the EPA estimates 2 percent of U.S. coal-fired plants will be shut down by 2015 because of the new regulations, a report last year by the bank Credit Suisse forecast that 18 percent of such plants could close. EPA administrator Lisa Jackson admitted that U.S. households would see electric bills increase an average of $3 to $4 per month within four years, a result of the $10 billion or more power companies will spend to comply with the emission standards.

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Assuming the proposed rules, now in a public comment period, are adopted by year-end, utilities will have up to four years to upgrade below-standard plants or shut them down. Yet, in spite of coal's reputation as a dirty fuel, over half of coal-powered plants already meet or surpass the EPA's new standards, partly because many states have already enforced emission limits themselves. Mercury emissions from these plants have fallen 27 percent since 1999, according to the Environmental Defense Fund. The plants that need to be retrofitted with technology to capture mercury and other pollutants are mainly older ones-and the technology's cost has dropped over the last decade.

Even so, the new standards, added to the EPA's crusade to regulate nontoxic carbon dioxide emissions and to growing worries about nuclear power safety, will leave some utility executives facing hard decisions. Some may downscale coal-based generation in favor of natural gas, a cleaner, abundant fossil fuel that already lights up a quarter of the United States.

Growing intolerance

A new study has helped define the difference between celiac disease and little-understood "gluten sensitivity"-two disorders rendering more and more Americans intolerant to the gluten in wheat, barley, and rye. Celiac disease, now affecting 1 in 133 Americans (quadruple the rate of 50 years ago, according to The Wall Street Journal), produces an autoimmune response in the presence of gluten that damages intestines and keeps the body from absorbing nutrients.

Gluten sensitivity produces a different immune response that is less extreme but more common-perhaps affecting 1 in 20 Americans. Currently the only treatment is a gluten-free diet, though some sensitive individuals may be able to tolerate small amounts of gluten. A Cambridge, Mass., start-up is developing a vaccine to treat celiac disease.

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is managing editor of WORLD Magazine and lives in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.


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