Back in the heady days of energy deregulation when its proponents were still touting the miracles of the free market, “green” energy experts were quietly noting how utility restructuring could radically reshape the way electricity is generated, transmitted and sold in the 21st century. Among the changes they predicted is what’s known as “distributed generation”—replacing the traditional system of generating power at centralized facilities, like coal-fired plants and hydroelectric dams, with an array of smaller, cleaner energy sources like rooftop solar panels, wind turbines and fuel cells distributed throughout the grid. In such a system, major energy consumers also become energy generators, producing much of their own electricity on-site and feeding any surplus back into the grid.
Such a scenario is indeed coming to pass, though hardly the way clean energy advocates envisioned. This week, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) will likely grant to Smurfit-Stone Container a permit to operate seven diesel-powered generators to provide the pulp mill with a total of 10 megawatts of electricity. The two-year permit would allow Stone to save as much as $80,000 a day off its utility bill due to escalating energy prices in the Northwest fueled by power shortages in California.
Because the diesel generators are leased and considered “temporary,” they are exempt from most state and federal emissions control laws. According to David Klemp, Air Permitting Section supervisor for the DEQ, pollution control devices for the generators would cost $1.8 million and take nearly four months to install.
“We made a determination that it wasn’t cost-effective to put on air pollution control equipment. If it’s too expensive, we don’t require it.” says Klemp, who emphasizes that DEQ also considers the environmental impact and the energy needs of Stone. According to the DEQ’s analysis, says Klemp, “There are going to be additional knocks out there in the ambient air [quality], but it’s still going to be in compliance with the ambient standards.”
But opponents of the permit, like Sue Bradford at Cold Mountain, Cold Rivers, say that the DEQ hasn’t considered other options to a plan that could potentially double the mill’s current emissions of nitrous oxides in the Missoula Valley, and increase its output of other greenhouse gases like sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and other hydrocarbons. Nitrous oxide is a precursor to acid rain and ozone, one of the main components of smog. Diesel exhaust also contains more than 40 known or suspected carcinogens.
Nor, says Bradford, has there been mention of where Stone plans to store the enormous amounts of diesel fuel required to run the generators, which would consume as much as 950 gallons hourly at maximum output.
In written comments submitted to the DEQ, Alexandra Gorman of Women’s Voices for the Earth takes issue with Stone’s failure to list other options for meeting the mill’s energy needs or for implementing other emissions control measures besides the “no action” alternative.
“What are the costs of the no-action alternative?” writes Gorman. “How much of the plant would likely be shut down? How many jobs would this affect? This information should be made explicit.”
As Gorman explains, other industries, such as coal-fired electric power plants, are able to control their nitrous oxide emissions for far less money; new diesel emission controls for buses and trucks cost less than 3 percent of the price of a typical new truck.
“The worry is that as everyone starts to freak out about higher electricity prices, they’re all going to move to diesel generators and collectively, this is a major problem,” she says.
Such fears are already being realized. According to Klemp, about a half-dozen other major industrial plants throughout Montana have applied for diesel generator permits to offset high energy bills, including Ash Grove, a cement kiln in Montana City that plans to generate eight megawatts, and Conoco and Exxon oil refineries in Billings, which hope to generate 20 megawatts each.
“I’ve been in this job five and half years and I’ve never seen this until the last few weeks,” says Richard Long, director of the Air and Radiation Program at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 8 headquarters in Denver. The problem is so new, says Long, that he can’t even estimate how many industries are opting to generate their own power.
“Consider the magnitude of this. If you have something like a wastewater treatment plant that’s putting in a diesel generator for those emergency periods, that’s never been a real issue,” says Long. “But when you have major industrial facilities that are looking to use them as their source of energy—and essentially it’s the equivalent of the energy source for a small city, since we’re talking 10, 15 generators running simultaneously—I think there are potentially air quality issues we need to address.”
But even louder than the rumble of diesel generators firing up across Montana to power the state’s industrial sector has been the deafening silence about alternative energy options, which, experts say, have suddenly become cost-effective and competitive.
“Where wind was looking good previously, but somewhat marginally more expensive, the current generation of wind parks are actually going to be able to produce electricity at or below the current wholesale price of power,” says Dale Norton of the Montana Center for Appropriate Technology.
For a state experts refer to as the “Saudi Arabia of wind”—Montana ranks fifth in the nation for wind generating potential—there may never be as good a time to be tilting toward windmills.