Coal ash management: why we are involved
by Craig A. Conrad
This summer, North Carolina enacted the nation's first state law regulating disposal of coal ash. Coal ash is a by-product of the electricity generating process at coal-fired power plants. The General Assembly considered the legislation after a pipe ruptured in February at a coal ash basin near Duke Energy's generating plant in Rockingham County, resulting in coal ash spilling into the Dan River.
The Coal Ash Management Act of 2014 requires Duke Energy to remove coal ash from four of its 33 coal ash basins in the state, prohibits construction of new coal ash basins, and phases in requirements for storing and disposing of coal ash. It requires additional groundwater testing and reporting requirements, and establishes a Coal Ash Management Commission that will supervise coal ash management in the state, including how Duke Energy will handle the ash at its other basins.
North Carolina's electric cooperatives have been engaged in the coal ash management discussion since the beginning, mainly because a portion of the electricity we supply to our member-owners comes from wholesale power agreements we have with Duke Energy and other providers. The cooperatives are interested in coal ash management that is appropriate, not overreaching and unnecessarily costly to our members. The cooperatives have a representative on the new nine-member commission and will continue participating in the process.
Over the years, we have deliberately maintained a diverse power supply to deliver reliable, safe, affordable and clean electricity to more than 950,000 member-accounts and 2.5 million people in the state. More than 70 percent of the power we deliver is produced at natural gas-fired plants, emissions-free nuclear reactors, and by renewable energy sources. North Carolina electric cooperatives do not own coal-fueled facilities, but our wholesale power agreements connect us to coal, so we are involved in developments affecting that fuel.
Disposal of coal ash is part of the cost of generating electricity from coal. And through our wholesale contracts, we expect to pay our fair share of managing this disposal. As always, our concern is keeping costs to our members at a minimum. As member-owned, not-for-profit utilities, all costs and benefits from coal ash management will flow through to our members.
The coal ash byproduct is safe when handled properly and may provide benefits when "reused" to create building materials, such as concrete and gypsum. All utilities using coal as a fuel source plan for the proper management and disposal of coal ash. Each utility also plans for managing coal ash after the useful life of the generation facility. Those practices are universal across the industry and regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state environmental agencies.
Since the February incident, Duke Energy has inspected each of its coal ash basins across the state and will take actions to avoid similar incidents. Additionally, Duke Energy is prepared to pay for the clean-up of the Dan River spill and has already begun under a settlement agreement with the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
We will continue to monitor the requirements which will be imposed on Duke Energy as an outcome of the legislation and the resulting costs. While it is difficult to put a dollar figure on this large undertaking, we will work with state officials and Duke Energy to mitigate the economic impact on electric cooperative members. We all expect to implement a sensible solution to managing the coal ash by-product.