A discussion about electricity in New Hampshire would be incomplete without mention of Merrimack Station in Bow, NH. Readers may recall that Merrimack Station is one of the 5 largest power plants in the state. In fact, Merrimack Station is New Hampshire's largest coal-fired power plant, as well as the largest plant in PSNH's power generation portfolio.
Merrimack Station's two coal-fired units were built in the 1960s and are rated at 496 megawatts total, together providing over 10% of the power generation capacity in the state. Because it's fueled by coal, Merrimack Station is always able to produce power at a lower cost than any other fossil fuel powered plant in the state. As a result, it's almost always running at its maximum output.
Coal arrives at Bow Station from
Portsmouthmultiple sources (see comments below for more info)
Coal is the least expensive fossil fuel for power plants by far. The heat energy contained in a fuel is measured in millions of British Thermal Units (MMBtu), and fuel costs are compared using dollars per MMBtu. For 2009, coal is estimated to cost $2.16 per MMBtu, natural gas $4.35, and oil between $8.60 and $12.23 depending on the grade. The cost for each fuel can bounce around wildly, but coal seems to always end up the cheapest.
OK, coal is cheap. So what's the problem you might ask? Well, coal may be cheap, but burning it emits lots of pollution and those emissions result in health and environmental issues that come with their own costs.
Fuel emissions data from theEnergyGuy.com
In the table above, the pollutants listed are carbon dioxide (CO2), sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), carbon monoxide (CO), hydrocarbons (HC), and particulate matter (PM).
Over the years, our collective understanding and appreciation of the dangers of these toxins has increased and that's resulted in several mandates to reduce emissions at power plants around the country. In 2006, the NH legislature decided that NH too needed to clean up the output from its coal-fired power plants. The result was a directive to PSNH to install a mercury and sulfur dioxide scrubber at Merrimack Station.
PSNH got moving on the directive and made a plan to connect the scrubber to the exhaust from the plant's two generating units. You can see the stack for the new scrubber on the left side of this recent photo from Merrimack Station in Bow.
The photos below show that construction is well underway. Even on a Saturday, when these shots were taken, crews were hard at work all around the site.
I couldn't help but notice the porta potty sitting on a platform at the top of the new stack. I guess it makes sense, as I'm sure it's a long trip down. Seeing this close-up gave me renewed appreciation and respect for the construction workers who take on projects like this. I'm not that afraid of heights, but that stack is waaaay up there!
Although construction on the scrubber is well underway, the project has become very controversial lately. The main source of the controversy was a cost increase that PSNH announced last year. The original estimate for the scrubber was $250 million dollars, but once PSNH had completed the design and started the contracting process, they increased the estimate to $457 million.
Since I'm late to the party, I won't get into a detailed analysis of the pros and cons of the project. Check out the links at the end of this post, or google "merrimack station scrubber" if you're up for some digging.
I'll end with a list of the highlights of the pros and cons, as well as a listing of some of the hidden and not so hidden forces at work pushing for and against the scrubber.
Arguments in favor of the scrubber:
- Coal is cheap (about $2.00 per MMBtu compared to $4-10 for gas or oil)
- Using coal keeps our energy portfolio diversified and secures supply (comes from US and south america not middle east)
- The plant itself is paid for and has life left in it
- The project will result in needed jobs in industries that are suffering
- It's needed to comply with the law and in the end we'll have one of the cleanest burning coal plants in the countryArguments against the scrubber:
- Coal may be cheap but when you add in the scrubber, the cost per mwh is no bargain
- The plant will still emit lots of bad stuff even after scrubber is done
- The plant is very old and big stuff could break in the next 15-20 years, costing more money
- The plant's boilers are old and finicky - they only burn special coal blends that can be tough to find and cost more
- New cap-and-trade legislation and other laws could make emisions more costly than they are now - Many argue that this plant requires an emissions "free lunch" to be cost competitive. Once the costs of the plant's other non-scrubbed emissions are priced in the plant could become very expensive
As with any public decision, politics and special interests are usually at work, sometimes behind the scenes. $457m is a very large project so there's plenty of raw cash at stake. But IMO, there's more than just the construction dollars at play as far as special interests go.
Forces pushing for the scrubber:
- Deregulation laws prevent PSNH from building or owning new plants - once Merrimack Station closes, PSNH loses about 40% of its generation capacity for good
- Equipment manufacturers, construction workers, powerplant workers, and associated unions and trade groups will gain from project contracts
- The coal industry wants to secure demand for their product
- Some ratepayers believe keeping the plant operating as long as possible will keep rates lowerForces pushing against scrubber:
- Environmentalists don't like coal because it pollutes and the mines leave behind a mess - they'd prefer the plant shut down
- Independent power producers (TransCanada Hydro, FPL, etc) will have less competition if the plant shuts down
- Regional natural gas and oil suppliers would prefer their fuels were used to make power instead of coal
- Some ratepayers are worried about rates skyrocketing because of the project
Google Map of Merrimack Station in Bow, NH
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A brief PSNH infomercial on the scrubber project