At the consumer's end of the wire, electricity
is perfectly clean-no gritty mess, no odor, no annoying smoke.
But trace that
electricity back through the wires, through the transmission grid,
all the way to the generating station, and things look different.
Go back far enough and in many places you'll find great heaps of
Nationally, more than
half of all electric power comes from coal. In Kentucky, a full 96
percent of electricity comes from coal. And as anyone who's ever
stoked a coal furnace to heat their home, then hauled away the
leftover ash and clinkers, or dodged smoldering cinders from an
old-time steam locomotive with a coal-fired boiler knows, dealing
with coal can be a dirty, messy job.
Coal use up, pollution down
Today, burning coal has
legitimately earned the promotional slogan of being an
"increasingly clean" way to generate electricity.
Cleaning up power plant emissions is one of the great success
stories of the electricity industry in the United States.
America's electric utilities have invested enormous time and
effort-and billions of dollars in equipment-to make dramatic
improvements in air quality. There's more to be done, though, and
utilities continue making investments to make coal a
Here is what's been
accomplished so far.
Since the passage of
the Clean Air Act of 1970, America's coal-based electricity
industry has invested more than $50 billion in a variety of
technologies to clean the air everyone breathes and to protect the
In just over three
decades, that world has changed enormously. Since 1970, the
population of the United States has skyrocketed, increasing by 33
percent. Our country's economic output increased a full 147
percent during that same period. And the use of coal to make
electricity to help power all this prosperity tripled, too.
While all those
measures went up, the emission of certain pollutants went down. In
its own survey (titled Latest Findings on National Air Quality:
1999 Status and Trends), the Environmental Protection Agency found
that America is showing steady progress in reducing pollutant
emissions and noticeably improving overall air quality.
The EPA pays special
attention to six major pollutant emissions, known as
"criteria air pollutants." In 1999, aggregate emissions
of the criteria air pollutants were a full 31 percent below the
levels of 1970.
Controlling pollution in
Here's how one co-op power
producer in Kentucky helped reduce emissions.
environmental affairs manager for East Kentucky Power (which
supplies electricity to 16 local distribution co-ops), based in
Winchester, says, "When the Clean Air Act went into effect in
1970 we operated six generating units built at different times
during the '50s and '60s."
Recalling how stringent
some of the newly developed rules were, Hughes says, "We had
to add a lot of control equipment, even change the kind of coal we
were burning, in order to meet the new standards for each of our
"When we added two
more units at Spurlock Station (near Maysville) in 1976 and
1981," Hughes continues, "they were constructed to meet
yet another different set of emissions standards. Each year the
EPA ratcheted down the standards, making them even more
Hughes says, "In
the past each plant had an individual standard to meet, based on
things like when and where it was built. But now every plant has
to meet the same low-emission standard for sulfur dioxide, one of
the criteria air pollutants."
Meeting tough new
standards and developing new ideas and technologies means that
coal burns much more cleanly than it ever has before-and electric
utilities using coal will continue to make even more improvements
in the future.
To find out more about
East Kentucky Power's commitment to clean coal technology, visit
their Web site at www.ekpc.com.
-Nancy S. Grant
Next month: Pollution Control Devices-What "Scrubbers" Do