April 2012

Coal Plant Shutdowns Threaten Blackouts
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As utility companies face new deadlines for coal-fired power plants to comply with tight new EPA clean air regulations, many energy suppliers have plans to shutter plants that employ thousands of IBEW members rather than invest in costly upgrades.

If thousands of megawatts are suddenly taken off-line, this could trigger massive electricity shortages, just as demand is expected to increase, according to a regional transmission organization report.

A report from PJM, a regional transmission organization covering 13 states and the District of Columbia, estimates that 18,000 megawatts of electricity will be lost to the power grid due to expected coal plant shutdowns. That's the loss of enough power to light and heat 18 million homes.

"Our nation is facing a potential emergency," says IBEW Utility Department Director Jim Hunter. "The well-researched projection from PJM far exceeds the predictions of EPA regulators on power lost to the grid from coal plant closures. Add to this number the resulting damage from dozens more shutdowns in the Midwest and Southeast, and America could have a real electrical reliability crisis as well as large increases in electric prices to consumers."

The EPA's latest standards for mercury and toxic pollutants are the product of a court order that goes back to the Bush administration, which failed to enforce prior regulations. The standards are accompanied by three-year deadlines that should be revisited, say union and company leaders. More regulations are expected to be issued soon.

The IBEW is supporting a bill sponsored by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Dan Coats (R-Ind.) to delay implementation of the EPA rule on cross-state air pollution by three years and the controls over mercury and toxins by two years. The measure coordinates both rules since the pollution control equipment is the same to achieve compliance for each.

Coal-fired power plants supply 46 percent of U.S. energy needs. So the EPA's deadlines and decisions by utility companies to take coal plants off-line won't just affect the jobs of men and women in those plants and their surrounding communities. New projections by companies and regulators responsible for power transmission confirm fears that premature shutdowns could lead to rolling blackouts, threatening even more jobs and economic recovery.

Predictions are never precise, says Hunter, but policymakers should listen to the voices of the men and women who work around the clock to supply power to their communities. He says, "Some so-called experts have always questioned our union's numbers, saying they aren't derived from sophisticated computer-generated modeling, but the most recent research is confirming the value of our real-world experience."

Prior to PJM's study, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation released a 10-year projection of U.S. electrical power production. According to the report, "The nation's power grid will be stressed in ways never before experienced."

America's thirst for energy to power our appliances, homes and businesses is growing despite the economic recession, says Hunter. While the EPA has greater legal authority than most agencies responsible for the delivery of reliable electric power, "The EPA's authority needs to be judiciously exercised," says Hunter.

Lost electrical power is not easily replaced. It takes a long time for permitting, licensing and construction of new energy sources. Says Hunter, "It wasn't long ago that our unions raised objections to utility deregulation only to see many of our concerns vindicated by subsequent failures. Let's not repeat the errors of the past by making regulations so tight that they strangle supply and economic recovery."

International President Edwin D. Hill says the Obama administration has made important strides in the president's goal of an "all of the above" energy policy that includes licensing the first new nuclear reactor in many years and increased incentives for developing renewable and domestic fossil fuel sources.

IBEW members across North America, says Hill, are hard at work on large-scale wind and solar power projects to boost our nations' renewable energy portfolio to reduce pollution and global warming.

"As responsible members of our communities, we will always insist on an approach to energy conversion that balances our desire for clean air with sound policy choices that consider the needs of workers, consumers and our nation's economic base," says Hill.

Madison, Wis.'s Blount Street plant is operated by members of Local 2304.