Clean energy has become big business. The days of shoving megatons of pollution into the atmosphere are history.
At issue is not just coal, but burning any fossil fuel, which includes coal, oil and natural gas. While many Americans have been conditioned to believe natural gas is clean, it is not.
To be specific, average emissions rates from U.S. natural gas-fired generation are approximately 1,130 pound per megawatt-hour of carbon dioxide, 0.1 pounds per megawatt-hour of sulfur dioxide and 1.7 pounds per megawatt-hour of nitrogen oxides. Compared to the average air emissions from coal-fired generation, natural gas produces half as much carbon dioxide, 1% as much sulfur oxides and less than a third as much nitrogen oxides. However, the process of exploration, production, treatment and transport of natural gas to power plants generate additional emissions, including methane, ethane, propane and other hydrocarbons.
Emissions matter. They can create or destroy profits for utilities. That is why claiming to be the cleanest utility of all matters to utilities, particularly utilities operating in deregulated states.
The main driver is state government policymakers, not federal government regulators. States are under growing pressure to clean up their acts. Many allowed too many pollutants to be produced. Either those pollutants are harming their own citizens' health or they are harming neighboring states. The consequences have included increased healthcare costs and lawsuits. Some of those lawsuits reached the U.S. Supreme Court.
Illinois is an example. Nationally, it ranks sixth in carbon dioxide emissions. On a per capita basis, the state emits 17.5 metric tons of carbon dioxide per person per year (Source: Energy Information Administration and US Census Bureau). That is a lot of carbon, but there are worse states.
Yet Illinois has other air problems. It has exceeded health standards for ozone (which harms lungs, particularly children's), particulate matter (which can lodge in lungs and eyes) and sulfur.
According to its website, Exelon owns only one fossil-fuelled power plant in the entire state. This plant operates part time and it does not use coal; it uses natural gas. Southeast Chicago Energy is a "black start" facility. In the event of a major power system failure, this unit can re-energize the electric system and bring other regional power plants back online.
Exelon owns a utility-grade solar farm on a 41-acre brownfield in Chicago's West Pullman neighborhood. It also owns 11 nuclear plants in Illinois (multiple units located in Braidwood, Byron, Clinton Dresden, LaSalle and Quad Cities).
If the issue is clean air, solar and nuclear power are winners. Commercial nuclear power plants emit zero air emissions. Exelon believes its nuclear fleet should be rewarded by state policymakers. The company's argument is its assets not only contribute to clean air, but Exelon also provides a huge tax base and thousands of high-paying jobs. In addition, if its assets were removed, the state would need new fossil power plants to assure grid reliability.
NRG Energy appears to disagree. According to the Chicago Tribune, NRG does not want state policymakers to reward Exelon's nuclear plants for helping clean air. Its argument is that the state should not reward Exelon for something it has been doing. Instead, NRG believes economic rewards should go to companies that reduce air pollution using today as the benchmark.
NRG has a good reason for its position. Like Exelon, the company owns nuclear power and renewable energy assets. Unfortunately, none of its pollution-free assets are located within Illinois.
In fact, NRG's only generating assets in Illinois are its huge fleet of coal and gas-fired plants. According to the company's website, this amounts to almost 6,300 megawatts and more than 70% of it is composed of coal. Adding them altogether, its fleet of Illinois-based fossil plants is the equivalent of eight or so nuclear plants.
While state policymakers wring their hands, a common sense approach would be to reward all clean energy sources, no matter when they were built. They could also reward coal and gas plants if they reduce emissions.
NRG already plans to reduce emissions. According to the Chicago Tribune, NRG will cease burning coal at one generating unit, convert another to burn natural gas, upgrade two others to meet new regulatory requirements.
In Illinois, Exelon is the cleanest investor-owned utility. However, the important metric is meeting future clean air goals. In that case, both Exelon and NRG offer the state the easiest solution. And yes, most Americans agree, dirty air should be penalized and clean air should be rewarded.