Power’s Environmental Issues Then and Now

Discussions about environmental issues related to power plants and the regulations governing their operation are as old as the industry, I discovered while thumbing through the bound July through December 1914 issues of POWER. The specifics of the environmental concerns have become more detailed and complex as scientific knowledge, monitoring technologies, and mitigation solutions advance. However, the general arguments—environmental control versus efficiency, for example—and the human nature demonstrated in the debates, are remarkably similar 102 years later.

Smoke and Ashes

Several articles in 1914 addressed minimizing smoke from power and steam plants both big and small (and there were more of the latter).

The August 11 issue ran a one-page story titled “Rules for Firing without Smoke,” with this synopsis: “How to build, clean and bank fires. In carrying a thick fire the coal is dumped in piles instead of being spread over the grate. The volatile matter is distilled in amounts which the furnace can care for and less smoke is produced.” This editor’s note was included at the end: “It is to be remembered that Mr. Monnett is smoke inspector of Chicago and that the rules in the above, as well as the recommendations in the previous articles of this series, apply particularly to conditions in the region where they burn the soft Illinois coal which is high in volatile matter. Further, being smoke inspector, the author’s principal effort is naturally toward smoke prevention, rather than economy or efficiency, which are more or less of second consideration.”

But POWER clearly appreciated efforts to reduce smoke pollution, and on October 6 advocated more adequately staffed city “smoke inspection departments,” concluding, “What is an appropriation of two, or twenty thousand dollars to reduce the cause of annual damage amounting to millions in most large cities?”

And in the September 8 issue the editor praises the Mellon Institute at the University of Pittsburgh for its bulletin “Some Engineering Phases of Pittsburgh’s Smoke Problem.” He notes the institute previously addressed smoke’s “damage to laundry, buildings, vegetation and its psychic effect upon individuals.” The latest bulletin addresses the “causes and abatement of the smoke evil” and finds that of 152 plants observed, “the underfed type of stoker [gave] smokeless combustion when properly handled.” The editorial adds, “One cannot read the report without again being reminded that plenty of available cheap fuel is sometimes an evil as well as a blessing to a large city, for as long as it is cheap, gross negligence and resulting smoke accompany its use.” Similar arguments about the downside of cheap fuels continue to this day.

Though ash management has become an especially sticky problem given recent regulatory action (see “Coal Combustion Residuals Rule Compliance Strategies” in last month’s issue), ash-handling has always been a matter of concern, at least from a material-handling perspective. One letter in 1914 commented on an article that had described a new vacuum ash-handling system. The writer calculated operating and depreciation costs and concluded that with few exceptions, “handling with wheelbarrows where the length of travel is moderate” was economically preferable. A few issues later, another reader took issue with those calculations—the sort of commentary that these days takes place in the online comments section of POWER articles or on social media.

Legislating Safety

In the early days of the industry, it was a struggle to get codes and standards and licensing requirements in place. It really was a Wild West of boiler operators, and just as in the Wild West, many died—as a result of boiler explosions and other catastrophic malfunctions. When an editorial in Hotel World protested against “passing laws for examining and licensing stationary engineers to handle heating boilers,” claiming that explosions were uncommon, a POWER editorial countered with the fact that there had been more than 500 such accidents in the previous year.

The hoteliers’ magazine was concerned about the added cost of paying for “licensed” men to operate the hotels’ steam heat systems. POWER responded: “Taking the worst figures cited, it would cost a hotel $450 a month instead of $25 to $50. Is not that a terrible price to pay for the increased safety of its guests during the winter? If the journal we are criticizing fairly reflects the attitude of its field, the editor of this paper hopes to do all his traveling in the summer, when he can stop at a hotel without feeling that he is sleeping over a gunpowder mine.”

As you can see, warranted sarcasm is nothing new in POWER editorials. And, because my father was a licensed boiler operator for an educational institution’s campus at the beginning of his career, I’m grateful that sensible laws eventually passed.

Although today’s regulation of the power industry is broader and more complex—one can’t see immediate effects of airborne mercury pollution in the way one can see bodies maimed by plant explosions—similar cost-benefit debates continue. Most recently, they’ve focused on the regulation of CO2 emissions. (Back in 1914, the only concern about CO2 was figuring out why it might be too low in flue gas, and how to improve combustion.)

Always Room for Improvement

The July 21, 1914, issue of POWER included this random, one-line observation: “So called waste material is in reality good material in the wrong place.” That’s essentially the premise of using waste coal for fuel, an issue with both environmental pros and cons, as explained in this issue’s “The Coal Refuse Dilemma: Burning Coal for Environmental Benefits.” As that feature and every other article in this issue demonstrates, finding the sweet spot for maximizing operational and economic efficiency while operating cleanly and safely remains the goal of the best power plants today. We hope you will learn from the new technologies and techniques offered in the following pages. ■

Gail Reitenbach, PhD is POWER’s editor.

environmental issues