BREMO BLUFF, VIRGINIA — Even before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released its proposed rules this month for reducing carbon emissions from the nation’s power plants, energy companies began converting older plants to cleaner technologies because they think it makes economic sense. The Bremo Power plant in Virginia has converted itself from the state's oldest coal burning facility to one powered by natural gas.
The trains that run through rural Virginia no longer deliver coal to the Bremo Power facility. The plant’s coal conveyor will soon be dismantled. Greg Searcy, the plant’s operation manager, says the plan is to turn the old coal storage area into a grass field.
“This area right here is where we used to have the coal pile, and we would have about 60 days of coal operation and inventory on the pile," said Searcy.
Natural gas now powers the Bremo station. The $53 million conversion project was undertaken in part to comply with existing environmental regulations.
The plant uses pressurized steam to turn the electromagnetic rotors to generate electricity.
Burning natural gas instead of coal to heat water into steam reduces by 40 percent the plant’s carbon dioxide emissions, that most scientists say are a major contributor to global warming.
Ed Bain, Dominion Power's vice president for power generation, says converting this plant to gas was also part of the company’s long term business plan.
“Dominion has always been an advocate of diversity in our fuel mix. Whether it is coal, natural gas, nuclear, hydro, renewables, we want to make sure that we are doing what’s right to keep rates low for our customers, improve reliability and also protect the environment," said Bain.
Bain says, in part because Dominion converted Bremo to gas, the company was given permission by state regulators to build a new coal burning plant elsewhere.
Elgie Holstein, with the Environmental Defense Fund advocacy group, says it is unrealistic to ban coal completely. It is an abundant and relatively cheap fuel. But he says new coal plants will be limited and cleaner.
“The new coal-fired plants that are being built in America today are much, much leaner than these 40 and 50-year-old plants. Still, even that new coal-fired generation is going to be much more limited because there is so much cheap natural gas," said Holstein.
Some business and political critics have voiced concerns that the new rules will greatly increase energy costs. But Dominion and many other U.S. power companies say they want to be good environmental stewards and need consistent regulations to make long term investments in cleaner technologies that are both affordable and profitable.