The air became clearer in southeast Baltimore County when the C.P. Crane coal power plant shut down a year ago, settling allegations that it violated pollution limits. But the plant could fire back up under a recent decision by a state regulator.
Its owners want to replace the retired coal boilers with ones powered by natural gas, which burns significantly cleaner than coal but still produces hazardous pollutants and adds greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. A Maryland Public Service Commission judge approved the owner’s plans for the Bowleys Quarters facility last month.
The decision is stirring discussions over whether Maryland should factor climate change more heavily into decisions about its power grid, and whether investing in more fossil fuel power generation should even be in its future. Along with the Crane plant, a handful of the state’s other coal-fired facilities have signaled they don’t have many years of operation left, but new natural gas pipelines and an export facility at Cove Point in Calvert County suggest that fuel will provide power for generations to come.
Earlier this year, Maryland set a goal to get half of its energy from renewable sources, and leaders of both political parties in Annapolis already are looking ahead to a fully renewable power grid.
Concerned that the Crane project runs counter to those aims, environmental and community groups have appealed the judge’s order. The utility commission signaled Thursday it plans to give the project closer scrutiny, initiating a process that could include more public hearings.
“Why are we still looking at plants like the Crane plant?” asked David Smedick, campaign and policy director for the Sierra Club’s Maryland chapter. “Why are we looking at putting new power plants in that are still on fossil fuels?”
The plant’s owners, an affiliate of Middle River Power, a private equity-backed company based in Chicago, say switching to natural gas will reduce air pollution, reducing emissions of smog-inducing nitrogen oxides by 87% and carbon dioxide output by 77%. They only plan to fire up the planned three new gas-fired generating units when power is in highest demand, operating at less than half the plant’s former coal-burning capacity.
But for residents who were relieved when exhaust stopped rising from the red-and-white-striped smokestacks on a peninsula between two Gunpowder River creeks, it’s still an unwelcome change.
Dan Doerfer, environmental co-chair for the Essex-Middle River Civic Council, said he’s worried old concerns about air and water quality will come back if the plant fires up again.
“The folks who’ve lived in that area, who’ve tolerated a coal-fired plant for 50 or more years, are thinking ‘Well, do we really need to restart?’” he said.
The Crane plant, named for a former Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. president, was among half a dozen large power plants that opened in the state in the 1950s and 1960s, providing baseload power as population ballooned. Built and owned for years by the Baltimore utility, it was sold by BGE’s new parent company Exelon in 2012. The plant passed through a couple of hands before being sold in early 2016 to C.P. Crane LLC, which is affiliated with the New York private equity firm Avenue Capital Group and Middle River Power.
But, as part of a settlement agreement with the Maryland Department of the Environment, the Crane plant was retired last June. The state environmental regulator said the facility was not properly testing its emissions and exceeded limits for particulate matter, hydrogen chloride and carbon monoxide. It also levied a $105,000 fine.
The plant’s owners didn’t treat the closure as permanent. Just before shutting down, CP Crane LLC applied to the Public Service Commission for permission to convert to natural gas power. The entity sought to modify what is known as the plant’s certificate of public convenience and necessity, a tool utility regulators use to determine whether power plants can and should operate.
Representatives for Middle River Power did not respond to requests for comment.
The company is seeking to turn the facility from a baseload power provider to what is known as a peaker plant, typically used only on hot summer days when electricity demand is highest and congestion on the power grid is greatest. Maryland public utility Judge Kristin Case Lawrence approved its application May 22.
Days later, Blue Water Baltimore, the Gunpowder Riverkeeper and the Essex-Middle River Civic Council appealed the decision, asking the Public Service Commission to review it.
While the groups are concerned about the facility’s emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollution, their argument is focused on how climate change could affect the waterfront plant. They say the judge didn’t adequately consider how floods and storms could affect its operations in the future, nor did she scrutinize whether more electricity generation is needed.
“We’re really glad to see that the coal operations have shut down, and that’s a great step,” said Angela Haren, the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper and director of advocacy at Blue Water Baltimore. “We just want to make sure whatever decisions are being made going forward consider all the potential environmental impacts.”
In response, plant representatives as well as lawyers for the Public Service Commission and the Maryland Power Plant Research Program, part of the state’s Department of Natural Resources responsible for ensuring the state meets its power needs safely and affordably, have called for the utility panel to reject the appeal. State law doesn’t require climate change considerations when reviewing power plant projects, they say.
In evaluating the project’s effect on the power grid, Lawrence found that it would “have no adverse impact,” she wrote in the order approving it. Under state law, regulators must consider “the stability and reliability of the electric system” when reviewing power plant projects, but the law does not require plant developers to demonstrate that their projects are addressing unmet demand for energy.
Patrick DeArmey, a lawyer with the Environmental Action Center who is representing the local water quality and community groups, acknowledged that Maryland statute doesn’t explicitly require consideration of climate change concerns. But they should still be factored in as part of analyses that the law does require, he argued, including of potential economic and water quality impacts. If flooding is going to inundate the plant in the future, that should be factored into both such analyses.
“In this day and age, in 2019, I think we need to be progressing toward climate change being considered,” he said.
Politicians have weighed in, and they’re divided. Democratic County Councilwoman Cathy Bevins and Republican state Sen. J.B. Jennings, whose districts include the plant, both wrote to the Public Service Commission saying the natural gas project would benefit both the environment and the economy. They cited plant owners’ estimate that it will spend more than $6.5 million on construction labor.
In interviews, both emphasized that the facility is not going to operate continuously.
“It’s not a plant that’s going to be running 24/7,” said Bevins, of Middle River.
In a statement to The Baltimore Sun, County Executive Johnny Olszweski Jr., a Democrat, said his administration shares “some of the concerns being raised on this project and would prefer to see a full and complete vetting of these issues prior to the release of any of the permits necessary to proceed.”
The judge’s order moving the project forward was set to become final if the five-member commission did not act on the appeal by Friday.