Electric Utilities

Power Plants and Air Pollution

Electric utilities are a major source of air pollutants that affect lung health, including sulfur dioxide, a powerful asthma trigger, and nitrogen oxide, which is a component of ozone smog. Air quality experts nationwide have identified reducing emissions from power plants as a technologically feasible, cost-effective approach to achieving cleaner air.

Electric utilities produce 66% of all sulfur dioxide emissions nationwide. Even brief exposure to relatively low levels of sulfur dioxide has been repeatedly shown to trigger attacks in people with asthma. Sulfur dioxide also contributes to the formation of fine particles, and to acid rain.

Power plants are also the source of 29% of nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions. NOx is a major component of ozone smog and fine particulate matter, which affect the health of millions of Americans across wide areas of the country.

Other pollutants produced in by electric utilities include carbon dioxide, a significant contributor to global warming, and heavy metals such as mercury.

Health Impact of Power Plant Emissions

Research has shown that communities in the vicinity of coal-fired power plants have a higher incidence of respiratory illness, including asthma, than areas more removed from these pollution sources.

High levels of NOx are linked to increased susceptibility to respiratory infections, especially among children.

What Are The Solutions?

Electric utilities vary in their rate of emissions, depending on the fuel mix used and the extent to which they have adopted pollution control measures. The 50 dirtiest power plants are responsible for 78% of all the sulfur dioxide produced by the electric power industry.

Power plants built before the 1970's were exempted from modern pollution control regulations. It was thought at the time that those older plants would soon be obsolete, and be replaced by cleaner technology. But it hasn't happened: 65% of electric utility plants were built before enactment of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1977. Some of the old, "grandfathered" power plants emit harmful pollutants at four to ten times the rate allowable for new plants built today.

Eliminating the "grandfather" loophole would require the nation's dirtiest power plants to install air pollution control equipment and/or convert to cleaner burning fuels. It would also "level the playing field", so that all electric utilities are subject to the same regulations.

More Information

For more information about electric utility emissions and pollution control programs, visit the US Environmental Protection Agency Acid Rain Program website at  http://www.epa.gov/airmarkets/.

The Natural Resource Defense Council has also published several reports quantifying the emissions from the nation's dirtiest power plants, which can be found on their website at  http://www.nrdc.org.