The EPA just released the final Mercury and Air Toxics Standard for Power Plants. See www.epa.gov/airquality.powerplanttoxics/actions.html. All gas, renewable, nuclear, and the 60% of coal plants with modern pollution controls meet the requirements of the rule. The rule is good news for those plants that have been competing against plants that do not meet the same standards that they do.
Old oil and coal plants without modern pollution controls generally do not meet the rule and must install pollution controls or switch to natural gas or another cleaner fuel.
The rule will cut by 90% mercury emissions from power plants; 88% acid gas emissions from power plants; 41% sulfur dioxide emissions from power plants. Oil and coal power plants emit 50% of total mercury emissions and 20% to 60% of total toxic metals like lead. There are 1,400 coal and oil units in the nation and again about 60% already have needed pollution controls.
The rule will prevent up to 11,000 premature deaths per year; 4,700 heart attacks per year; 130,000 asthma attacks per year. The EPA states that "the value of the air quality improvements for human health alone totals $37 billion to $90 billion each year."
The rule provides generally 4 years for plants or January 2016 to be in compliance, and a case-by-case reliability safety valve to provide an additional year for compliance to a power plant determined to be critical to reliability of the grid in a local area. The EPA states it "believes there will be few, if any situations, in which this pathway will be needed."
The EPA projects that 4,700 megawatts or about 1.5% of the nation's coal capacity will retire as a result of the rule alone by 2016. Low-natural gas prices, falling electricity demand forecasts, and aging of the generation fleet will lead to more power plant retirements, as the owners of 231 coal units that total 48,000 megawatts have announced they will close by 2022.
The EPA notes that builders of new power plants report to the EIA that currently 40,000 megawatts of new generation is under construction in the country, more than enough to compensate for expected retirements by 2016.
This rule does not endanger reliability. The lights stay on, or if they go out, they do so for reasons other than this rule.