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How new federal limits on carbon emissions from gas and coal-fired plants impact Florida utilities

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Power companies have new limits on the amount of carbon emissions coming from their plants. The federal regulations are meant to lessen the impacts of climate change.

The energy sector is the top emitter of greenhouse gases in the greater Tampa Bay region, according to a recent report by the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council. It’s second nationally, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports.

Greenhouse gases trap heat into the atmosphere, causing global warming.

Now, existing coal and new natural gas-fired power plants that run more than 40% of the time will have to eliminate 90% of their carbon dioxide emissions.

The already existing coal plants will have until 2032 to meet the standard if they’re still planning on operating after 2039, and a similar rule for existing natural gas plants has been delayed.

“We're working with the goal of getting at least a proposal done before the end of the year, said Joseph Goffman, assistant administrator in the Office of Air and Radiation at the EPA.

He said the energy sector is going through a clean energy transition.

"What we're hoping to do is sort of create, if you will, a synergy between these regulations and the other policies that are being put into place that favor achieving emissions reductions and investing in clean energy with the benefit being that public health will improve,” Goffman said.

“There'll be fewer problems associated with air pollution, and we'll be continuing to make progress in reducing the CO-2 emissions that the power sector is emitting.”

"I've spent a tremendous amount of time working on trying to get coal ash designated specifically as a hazardous waste. It has not happened yet, but that's something that we're working on." Walter L. Smith II, environmental engineer and Sierra Club representative
Walter L. Smith II, environmental engineer and Sierra Club representative

Brooke Ward, with Food and Water Watch, said controlling greenhouse gas emissions is a step in the right direction, but said it can be problematic if utilities rely on a method called carbon capture.

“They’re not actually calling for a reduction in production. They're calling for using unproven technology to try to capture that carbon, which has not happened anywhere … This is 100% theoretical,” Ward said. “They are building those rules around a technology that doesn't do what it says it does.”

Capturing carbon dioxide from smokestacks and storing it underground has not been fully proven to work, and the pipelines required to move that carbon dioxide through communities are controversial.

Tampa Electric currently has three natural gas plants with a new one called The South Tampa Resiliency Project expected to be online at the end of 2026.

“The new regulations establish the Best System of Emission Reductions and guidelines for states to develop a state plan to meet the standards that include new natural gas plants. TECO has no units that fall under these standards,” said TECO media spokesperson Cherie Jacobs.

The utility does have one unit at Big Bend that is capable of burning coal or natural gas, and it is designed to meet the new standards through 2039.

Duke Energy Florida has two coal units at its Crystal River Energy Complex, seven natural gas plants, and more than 35 fast start combustion turbines that also burn natural gas or oil as a diverse fuel mix.

“Duke Energy is continuing to enhance its natural gas power plants to reduce fuel consumption, generating immediate and future customer savings. These projects make the units more efficient by allowing them to produce more power with the same amount of fuel,” Ana Gibbs, with Duke’s Corporate Communications, wrote in an email.

The company estimates customers will save $150 million to $200 million per year in reduced fuel costs from fleet enhancement investments under its proposed 2025-2027 rate case filing.

Impacts of coal ash

The EPA is also strengthening its rules around the fine gray ash that's a byproduct of burning coal to create electricity.

Coal ash ponds or landfills shut down before Oct. 19, 2015 must now be monitored for groundwater contamination.

These requirements are also now extended to coal ash dumps that may not be exactly labeled as ponds or landfills.

Walter L. Smith II, an environmental engineer and a representative of the environmental organization Sierra Club, said these new rules from the EPA don't go far enough as he wants all coal ash ponds shut down.

“I’d love to see them shut down properly, and remediated. I'd love to see the community's health risk minimized,” Smith said.

“It does offer an opportunity there for these companies to engage communities, and to actually begin to see what the health impacts have been because they've been in ivory towers this entire time … and haven't concerned themselves with the health of the people that they've impacted.”

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry says on its website that these chemical compounds can cause skin irritation, and breathing in these compounds can cause respiratory irritation and irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat.

Eating or swallowing these compounds can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Some of the compounds found in coal ash can cause cancer after continued long-term ingestion and inhalation.

"I've spent a tremendous amount of time working on trying to get coal ash designated specifically as a hazardous waste. It has not happened yet, but that's something that we're working on," Smith said.

EPA media spokesperson Shayla R. Powell said the new rule helps give clarity on the regulatory landscape for the sector regarding safe management of waste.

“The rule helps protect communities near power plants, many of which are communities with environmental justice concerns. This action also holds polluters accountable for controlling and cleaning up the contamination created by the disposal of coal combustion residuals,” Powell said in an email.

Tampa Electric has one active coal ash pond left at its Big Bend plant in Apollo Beach, while Duke Energy has an ash landfill at its Crystal River Complex.

Florida Power and Light did not respond to a request for comment.

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Jessica Meszaros is a reporter and host of Morning Edition at WUSF Public Media.