Reliable and Affordable Energy

With the severe winter of 2014 as a backdrop, there have been questions about the future affordability and reliability of electricity. But what’s so often missing from this discussion is the reality that technological and economic transitions in the power sector are modernizing our nation’s electricity system. The result?  Clean, affordable energy for generations to come.

As part of this change-over, older coal-burning plants are already being phased out. Some people still wonder whether EPA is to blame for these closures. But the reality is that power plant retirements are business decisions to move away from investing in aging facilities, many of which are more than 50 years old, do not control pollution, and are almost never run anywhere near full capacity. Other factors like low natural gas prices relative to other fuels and slow growth in demand for electricity also contribute to these market-driven business decisions.

We have seen significant progress in the power sector — all while keeping our businesses and homes powered up and our economy growing. For example, new and improved technologies — including more efficient and responsive natural gas plants, lower renewable energy costs, energy efficiency advances, and smart grid growth — are creating innovative ways to generate, transmit, and use electricity.


Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Something to Be Thankful For

By Kathleen Stewart

Kathleen Stewart examines a stove.

Kathleen Stewart examines a stove.

On Thanksgiving, stuffed with turkey and pie, I can summon just enough creativity to be thankful for the usual stuff—a roof over my head, food on the table, and my family’s health and happiness. I don’t tend to remember to be thankful for the modern conveniences that make all of the above possible.

This year, I am officially giving thanks for my natural gas heater. Whenever a slip of chill creeps into my drafty old house, warm nights are just a flip of a switch away. With heat so instantaneously available, it’s easy to forget that 3 billion people worldwide rely on wood, dung, charcoal, coal, and biomass (fuel derived from organic matter, usually plants) to cook for their families and warm their homes.

Even on the Navajo Nation, where high voltage transmission lines crisscross the land to bring electricity to Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Los Angeles, approximately 60% of families use coal, coke, or wood to heat their homes. About 30% of families use coal as their primary heating fuel.

In 2010, researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey and Dine College (the Navajo Nation’s institute of higher education) surveyed 137 homes in the Navajo town of Shiprock, NM. In this town, with average December/January lows of 19 degrees Fahrenheit, the researchers found that 77% of the homes used stoves primarily for heating, and 25% of families burned coal for heat in stoves that were not specifically designed for coal. They also found that 26% of the stoves were ten or more years old.

Navajo town of Shiprock, NM

Navajo town of Shiprock, NM

The researchers noted that many of the stoves were improperly vented, with visible cracks in the chimneys, or no chimney at all.

The indoor smoke poses serious health risks, particularly for children and the elderly, but there is no easy solution. There are no EPA certified coal stoves, and most newer coal stoves are designed to burn cleaner-burning anthracite coal, not the types (bituminous and subbituminous) available—cheap or free—on the Navajo Nation. With a median household income of $20,000 and limited existing infrastructure, gas and electricity are generally too costly.

That’s why we and our EPA colleagues have teamed up with partners at Dine College to identify and research heating options that will reduce exposure to coal smoke from home heating on the Navajo Nation. The end result will help provide stakeholders with an understanding of the best alternatives to reduce health and environmental impacts from home heating—alternatives that are technically, economically, and culturally feasible.

Last night I fell asleep curled around my home’s heater vent after the kids went to bed. I crave being warm like a snail craves its shell. In fact, I am actually allergic to being cold. Look that allergy up and then be thankful for two new things this Thanksgiving.

Learn more about EPA research and programs on how to heat your home while minimizing the health impacts:


About the Author: Environmental scientist Kathleen Stewart helps concerned communities understand risks from indoor and outdoor air pollution. For this project, she is working with Agency research scientist Paul Solomon, who has extensive experience developing ways to measure particulate matter in the air, and to better understand the relationships between air pollution sources and exposure risks.



Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Gaslight: Beautiful…But Dirty

By Walter Mugdan

In 1792 the Scottish engineer William Murdock pioneered the process of commercial coal gasification – that is, turning the solid lumps of hard, black mineral into gaseous form.  Murdock, a colleague of James Watt (of steam engine fame, not the former U.S. Secretary of Interior), heated coal in the absence of air, converting most of the coal to a gas similar to the natural gas that many of us use today heating and cooking.

Murdock’s purpose was to generate gas that could be used for lighting.  Within a few years gas lighting became common in factories in Britain.  By 1814, gas streetlights were being installed in London, and by 1819 close to 300 miles of pipe had been laid in that city to supply some 51,000 burners.  In 1816, a Murdock licensee, the Baltimore Gas Company, started the first coal gasification operation in America, also primarily for use in lighting.  For many decades, coal gas was the dominant fuel for indoor lighting, and for nearly a century it was dominant for urban street lighting.

More than 1500 gasification plants (known as “manufactured gas plants” or MGPs) operated in the U.S. in the past.  It was expensive to build the pipes and other infrastructure needed to convey the gas to homes and streetlights, so these plants were built in the midst of the densely populated urban areas near where the gas was used; New York City alone had several dozen.  The last MFG plant in New York State closed as recently as 1972.

Gaslight was quite beautiful – even romantic – and, of course, an amazing improvement over candles and oil lamps.  But coal gasification was a very messy business, leaving tarry residues loaded with what we now know to be toxic chemicals.  The coal tar wastes were routinely dumped on the ground.  Because the coal tar never really hardens, it tends to ooze its way down into the ground until it hits some obstruction (like bedrock), and then it moves sideways.  Because MGPs used lots of coal, most were built next to a commercial waterway for ease of delivery.  Consequently, those waterways are now often contaminated by the coal tar.

There are plenty of coal tar sites on the federal Superfund list and comparable state lists of contaminated sites.  In New York alone there are some 300 coal tar sites on the state’s hazardous waste site list.   (Nearly 200 of these have been or are being remediated.)  There were no less than 3 MGPs along the short 2-mile length of the infamous Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, which contributed to contaminant levels in the canal mud that are measured in parts per hundred (rather than the usual parts per million, billion or even trillion).

Coal gas eventually gave way to electricity as a means of producing light; and natural gas replaced coal gas for heating and cooking.  But the mess left behind by the MGPs remains a huge problem, requiring billions of dollars in cleanup costs.

About the Author: Since 2008 Walter has served as Superfund director for U.S. EPA Region 2, managing the region’s toxic waste cleanup, emergency response and brownfields programs.  For the previous six years he was director of the region’s air, water, hazardous waste and environmental review programs.  He joined Region 2 in 1975 as a staff attorney doing air pollution enforcement work.  From 1991 to 2002 he held various supervisory positions in the region’s legal office, culminating as Regional Counsel.  In his private life he heads a small, local conservation group in northeast Queens.  He enjoys bicycling, kayaking and hiking; and since 2010 he has been moonlighting as an Executive Producer (read: source of funding) for his daughter’s nascent career as an independent film maker.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Telling the Truth About the Environment and Our Economy

This is cross-posted from The Huffington Post

By Administrator Lisa P. Jackson

It’s a certainty in Washington that lobbyist talking points and inside-the-beltway speeches are going to be overblown and exaggerated. But lately, misleading claims about the EPA’s work have been making their way into the mainstream debate.

The most notable is an industry report that the EPA is responsible for an unprecedented “train wreck” of clean air standards that will lead to the mass closure of power plants. The “train wreck” claim has been repeated by everyone from congressional leaders to major newspapers. It sounds pretty scary, but the trouble with these reports — there is no “train wreck.”

Earlier this month a Congressional Research Service report concluded that industry’s claims were made “before EPA proposed most of the rules whose impacts they analyze,” and are based on “more stringent requirements than EPA proposed in many cases.”

On the issue of plant closures, I take the word of industry leaders like the Chairman and CEO of Exelon Corporation, who said “These regulations will not kill coal… up to 50% of retirements are due to the current economics of the plant due to natural gas and coal prices.” The Congressional Research Service report also found that EPA’s standards will primarily affect “coal-fired plants more than 40 years old that have not, until now, installed state-of-the-art pollution controls.” That echoed the remarks of the CEO of American Electric Power from April of this year: “We’ve been quite clear that we fully intend to retire the 5,480 megawatts of our overall coal fleet because they are less efficient and have not been retrofitted in any particular way.”

This is just one example from the larger debate over the EPA’s effect on the economy. That’s an important debate when job creation is our nation’s top priority, and that makes it all the more troubling to see the EPA attacked for measures we haven’t actually proposed, and to hear our fundamental responsibility of protecting the health and environment for all Americans targeted as an enemy of job creation.

Some in Washington are working to weaken safeguards and undermine laws that protect our families from pollution that causes asthma, cancer and other illnesses, especially in children. Big polluters are lobbying congress for loopholes to use our air and water as dumping grounds. The result won’t be more jobs; it will be more mercury in our air and water and more health threats to our kids. As a senior official from the Bush EPA recently wrote, “Abolishing the EPA will not cause a revival of America’s economy, but it will certainly result in a major decline in public health and our quality of life.”

It’s time for a real conversation about protecting our health and the environment while growing our economy. EPA’s 40 years of environmental and health protection demonstrate our nation’s ability to create jobs while we clean our air, water and land.

When big polluters distort EPA’s proposals as a drag on our economy, they ignore the fact that clean air, clear water and healthy workers are all essential to American businesses.

They also overlook the innovations in clean technology that are creating new jobs right now. The CEO of Michigan’s Clean Light Green Light recently said, “EPA has opened the doors to innovation and new economic opportunities. By spurring entrepreneurs who have good ideas and the drive to work hard, the EPA has helped give rise to countless small businesses in clean energy, advanced lighting, pollution control and more, which in turn are creating jobs.”

It’s time to recognize that delays of long-expected health standards leave companies uncertain about investing in clean infrastructure, environmental retrofits, and the new workers needed to do those jobs. These are potential opportunities for engineers and scientists, as well as pipefitters, welders and steelworkers. Pledges to weaken or slow proposed standards, many of which have been developed over years and with industry input, prevent businesses from investing in those jobs.

Some leaders in congress have already stated their intent to roll back critical environmental protections when they return to session. Misleading claims are translating into actions that could dismantle clean air standards that protect our families from mercury, arsenic, smog and carbon dioxide. All of this is happening despite the evidence of history, despite the evidence of Congress’ own objective Research Service, and despite the need for job creation strategies that go well beyond simply undermining protections for our health, our families and our communities.

Telling the truth about our economy and our environment is about respecting the priorities of the American people. More than 70 percent of Americans want EPA to continue to do its job effectively. Those same Americans want to see a robust economic recovery. We have the capacity to do both things if we don’t let distractions keep us from the real work of creating jobs.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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