Regulators Clash on Air Quality and Electric Reliability

Michael Giberson

Regulatory authorities and public policy goals have collided on the Virginia side of the Potomac River, just across from D.C. This has been a slow-motion collision, long in coming and probably weeks or months still to go, so pull up a chair and watch the show. Virginia state officials have caused the shut down of a power plant that the Washington, DC utility regulator calls vital to protecting the reliability of the electric power system in the area.

For years, residents of Alexandria, Virginia have complained about the emissions coming from the Mirant’s Potomac River power plant. The emissions are particularly a problem for the folks living at Marina Towers, a 14-story apartment and condominium built 300 yards from the power plant. The five-boiler coal burning power plant, which produces about 500 MW, has been operating since 1949. It is old enough – by a substantial margin – to have been exempted from the most stringent air quality regulations, but apparently hasn’t been able to comply with the laxer standards do apply.

The Mirant plant, formerly owned by D.C. electric utility Pepco, supplies power into DC and Maryland, but does not directly provide power to its Virginia neighbors. This slight mismatch between costs and benefits probably contributes to the plants political troubles.

A recent study, commissioned by Mirant pursuant to a consent decree with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, concluded that the plant had the potential to produce well in excess of allowable levels of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide under worst-case conditions, and was likely in violation of the particulate standard too. The plant met requirements for Carbon Monoxide and Mercury emissions. In response to the study, the Virginia DEQ has ordered Mirant to clean up or shut down. Mirant concluded it had no readily available compliance fix, and so began shutting down the plant on Wednesday.

On Thursday, the District of Columbia Public Service Commission filed a request with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to order the reactivation of the plant. The Business Gazette (Maryland) reports:

The District of Columbia Public Service Commission filed an emergency petition Thursday with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, seeking to reverse the shutdown of Mirant Corp.’s power plant in Alexandria, Va.

The commission said the shutdown “will have a drastic and potentially immediate effect on the electric reliability in the greater Washington, D.C., area.” […]

FERC spokeswoman Celeste Miller said Thursday that a comment period will be open until Monday on the District’s petition.

Potomac Electric Power Co. customers in the District make up the bulk of users of power generated by the plant. Pepco has 750,000 customers in the nation’s capital and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

“Barring any additional problem, we’re fine,” said Pepco spokeswoman Mary-Beth Hutchinson. “We have contingencies in place as long as it doesn’t shoot up to 96 degrees.”

Whew, that’s a relief, they got a plan in place to keep the power flowing unless the temperature rises.

I’d say the long term prognosis for the Mirant plant is not good. Mirant in is bankruptcy, and so is likely to be a little short on cash for big improvements. If Mirant does have the money for big improvements, they’ll likely end up triggering the more stringent environmental standards that apply to new sources. All in all, Mirant may be better off taking down the plant and building “Marina Towers II.” After all, they have a prime piece of property on the Alexandria waterfront.


The Mirant study is available from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality website.

Va DEQ also has a handy “In the News” page which lists many media reports on the issue.

A Google News search on “Mirant Potomac” reveals many more stories.

A quick visit to the Weather Underground reveals that since 1975, over 1/5 of the days during the end of August/beginning of September period have had temperatures above 90 degrees F. The average high this time of year is nearer 87 degrees.