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Big Bend works to meet compliance standards

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image Big Bend Power Station in Apollo Beach.

$76 million benefit to customers


By 2016, it is possible that customers serviced by TECO’s Big Bend Power Station in Apollo Beach will begin seeing a cost savings on their electric bill.

There are nearly 700,000 customers in the Big Bend service area, including all of Hillsborough County and parts of Polk, Pinellas and Pasco counties.

“Tampa Electric wants to change the ignition fuel at its Big Bend Power Station to natural gas from oil,” said Cherie Jacobs, Tampa Electric/TECO People’s Gas media spokesperson. “All customers will benefit from fuel savings.”

The Big Bend Power Station is a coal-fired operation, which uses light oil currently as the startup process — called “lighting off” — to warm up the firebox enough to establish a stable flame pattern before the primary fuel is switched on, which in this case is coal. Using natural gas as the ignition fuel is a less troublesome fuel, and it is much cleaner.

 “The ignition fuel starts the fire,” Jacobs said. “The emission fuel starts the boiler. It will eliminate 30,000 barrels of oil annually.”

Also of significant importance, according to Jacobs, is that this change will reduce emissions and help the environment.

Increasingly, the Environmental Protection Agency is driven to write new carbon-emissions rules because of the potential threat of climate change. Recently, President Barack Obama has been making a push for a transition to renewable energy sources, so it is thought by some that coal-fired generating stations may become a thing of the past.

It was projected that by 2020, some 90 percent of proposed power plants would be shut down because the newer standards set by the EPA would be too stringent and costly. Coal-fired plants would have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to make the necessary changes, such as adding “scrubbers.”

In 2009, Mother Earth News reported that 95 proposed coal-fired power plants had been canceled or postponed in the U.S.:  59 in 2007, 24 in 2008 and at least 12 by early 2009.

Instead, new coal-energy plants are being built worldwide as emission controls and clean coal technologies keep coal-plant construction costs low enough for the operations to still make money after they come online. Owners of coal plants are working to bring their stations into compliance, instead of closing them.

Last month, Gina McCarthy, EPA administrator, was at the IHS (formerly Information Handling Services) CERAWeek (Cambridge Energy Research Associates) energy industry conference in Houston. McCarthy said the agency’s latest carbon-emission regulations will not disadvantage coal-fired plants, in spite of the new standards. The rules, in draft form, will be released in June and will undergo a 12-month review before they become law.

“Let me be clear about one thing,” McCarthy said. “Conventional fuels like coal and natural gas are going to play a critical role in a diverse energy mix for years to come.”

It is estimated that owners of coal-fired plants have invested more than $30 billion in flue-gas desulfurization systems between 2007 and 2011 to update their operations, according to a 2013 report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

In an effort to stay in compliance, Tampa Electric has continually met these requirements at its four power stations, including Big Bend. At Big Bend, they installed flue-gas desulfurization systems or “scrubbers” to all four units by the end of 1999, which means that the system has removed 95 percent of sulfur dioxide from all units, and met the standards set by the 1990 U.S. Clean Air Act Amendment.

In 2004, they minimized emissions of particulate matter by approximately 71 percent from their stacks. Other changes they have made are the combustion modifications made by the end of 2010, which reduced emissions of nitrogen oxides by nearly 80 percent. Later, they said, they invested $23 million in scrubber upgrades, which reduced sulfur dioxide emission by 88 percent from the 1998 levels.

Tampa Electric is waiting for approval from the Florida Public Service Commission before starting on the $21 million project that will replace the ignition fuel with natural gas at Big Bend. They expect to receive a decision by June 5.  Construction will begin in spring 2015.

“This project would benefit Tampa Electric customers in multiple ways — by reducing fuel costs and improving environmental performance,” said Gordon Gillette, president of Tampa Electric. “This is yet another example of our environmental leadership.”

How much that savings would mean to every household is not yet  known, according to Jacobs. However, Jacobs said that what this means in dollars and cents to replace oil with natural gas will save customers $76 million in fuel costs over the life of the units and reduce dependence on foreign oil.

Florida PSC needs to see that certain criteria would be met before they approve a project of this size, said Jacobs. She said that before the commission will consider approval it will be looking at how prudent the expense and investment will prove to be, as well as the cost benefit to the customer, and finally, whether it will help the environment.

If approved, coal-fired Big Bend units will be replaced as each unit goes into scheduled maintenance outage. The time frame for this project to finish is between March and November 2015.

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