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Thursday, November 5, 2009

PUC's Kolbeck Misplaces Negative Sign, Thinks Coal Makes Air Cleaner

PUC Commissioner Steve Kolbeck apparently does math with imaginary numbers:

Steve Kolbeck, vice chairman of South Dakota's Public Utilities Commission, said construction of Big Stone II and improvements to the nearby power plant would have cut total pollution from the site while greatly increasing its output.

"If we could have gotten it built ... we could have actually made the air cleaner up there," Kolbeck said" [Dale Wetzel, "Developers Abandon Plan for Big Stone II Power Plant," AP via Winona Daily News, 2009.11.03].

Help me out: building a coal-fired plant that would have pumped out four million tons of carbon dioxide a year, would have made the air cleaner? The two Minnesota administrative judges who ruled against building the power lines to Big Stone II (and whom the Minnesota PUC amazingly ignored) found the new coal plant would have emitted as much CO2 as all of the cars and trucks in South Dakota. And CO2 makes up only 10%–12% of the crap coming out of a coal plant smokestack (fly ash and mercury anyone?).

Yikes—next Commissioner Kolbeck will be telling farmers that the Keystone oil pipelines will make their groundwater safer.


  1. Corey,

    After someone informed me I was mentioned in your blog I checked it out. Here is a little clarification.

    If Big Stone II would have been built the total emissions from both power plants would have been less than today. Notice the "..." in the comment which is where I stated the increased transmission capacity would have lead to more wind which would ultimately make the air cleaner up there.

    For further clarification if the project was completed, SO2 emissions would have been 1/7th as much as they are today at BSI. There would have been less particulate matter, and the NOx and mercury emissions at the BSI plant would have been cut in half. It is also noteworthy that Big Stone Unit II would have produced 18% less CO2 than existing coal-fired power plants. These are the facts the State of South Dakota’s Supreme Court agreed unanimously with. Not that it matters now because it was killed, but yes, the air would have been cleaner if it were built then it is today.

    In my opinion your post is a little smug. Maybe you can change it now that you have a few more facts.

    Steve Kolbeck

  2. Steve:

    So, am I to understand that it's not possible to implement the same emission controls on BSI without a BSII? I would assume that if you put the same emission controls on BSI without building a BSII we would see superior reductions in emissions from both plants.

    Also, are we not able to build increased transmission capacity without building another coal plant? It may be less economical but I don't think that it's impossible...

  3. Thank you dropping by, Commissioner Kolbeck! Now, let me get this straight: are you suggesting that I should have been able to translate AP's ellipses to mean, "BSII >> more transmission >> more wind turbines >> cleaner air"? Uff da—presuming to have such telepathic powers would sound awfully... smug.

    I'm still struggling with the numbers. If I throw a party for five guys who eat a lot of pizza, and then I invite one more skinny kid who doesn't eat as much as the other guys, I still need to order more pizza. If we build a second coal-fired plant next to Big Stone Lake, even if it emits 18% or 80% less CO2 than the neighboring plant, we're still emitting more CO2.

    Now if you're telling me that we (or Otter Tail) can upgrade BSI to emit so much less pollution that we could make room on the pollution scorecard for a whole 'nother coal plant right beside it and still come out to the good on pollution, well, that is spectacular! But we'll be even farther ahead if we make those upgrades to BSI and don't build BSII. I'd ask the same question as Tony: if BSI can be cleaned up that much, why don't we do that now? Is that upgrade inherently coupled with building another plant? Do we have to shut down BSI to upgrade the gear and thus need a backup plant? If so, we'd better get in gear on building wind and solar... and big batteries!

  4. Tony,
    Great questions, but it leads us down a complex road. The short answer is "yes," adding the enhanced pollution control facilities at Big Stone would reduce emissions from the existing plant without the construction of Big Stone II. Can Big Stone be compelled to install these upgrades? That's a much tougher issue. Utility and other air emissions are regulated by the air quality permitting and enforcement programs of the SD DENR and federal EPA. Under certain circumstances, existing power plants and other emitters of air emissions can be required to enhance their emission control facilities. Some of these only trigger when a plant undergoes a major upgrade (there is a lawsuit currently pending in federal court over this brought by Sierra Club). Others, however, can be imposed on existing facilities regardless of plant enlargements or upgrades. Like I said laws and regulations that govern this are very complex and are under a more or less continuous process of revision. The folks over at DENR's Air Quality Program are the experts in this, and I would suggest directing your inquiry to them if you want more information.
    As far as the transmission question, no, it is not impossible for that to happen. Is it likely that there will be a dedicated transmission line to major consumers with reserved capacity for South Dakota grown wind on it, no is my answer to that also. Transmission is expensive and comes infrequently to remote parts of South Dakota. In my opinion we need to secure those 30-60+ year capacity expansions that are dedicated to a South Dakota resource (wind) as much as we can. There is no guarantee a transmission line will be built up there now. BSII may have run for 40 years (current federal legislation calls for 50% less carbon by 2050), and then that transmission line, that would have been built, could have carried South Dakota wind for another 20-30-40 years. The point is we could have had a road to export wind on, now we don’t. Just because it has a fossil fuel on it to get built, doesn’t mean it will always have a fossil fuel. Look at transmission today, just the opposite is true. Most of it was built with no idea in mind that renewable energy would be running on it. In fact the Federal government made coal the fuel of choice after the nuclear incidents when a major infrastructure build out took place. The point is who knows where the electrons will come from in the future. If we don’t have the roads to deliver them, South Dakota will be left with no way to deliver the product to market anyway. Of course you could talk about distributed generation and all houses having a wind mill next to them, but that is all the more reason to secure an asset before the market peaks.

    Again, thanks for the question,

  5. Corey,
    I count all pollutants. If you see if a different way so be it.

    No, I was not saying you should read into the AP’s comments and not sound smug. I was referring to “PUC's Kolbeck Misplaces Negative Sign, Thinks Coal Makes Air Cleaner” and “Yikes—next Commissioner Kolbeck will be telling farmers that the Keystone oil pipelines will make their groundwater safer.” I am guessing you already knew that and were just being well….smug.

    I think I answered your other questions in a post to Tony.


  6. [actually, sarcastic is more like it. ;-)]

    Yes, Commissioner Kolbeck, I did find my answers in the very good response you gave Tony. (You and I were typing at the same time!)

    So was upgrading BSI part of the BSII project? To get the cleaner air you're talking about, that has to happen, and I hadn't read about that aspect of the project in any preceding reports.

  7. Steve:

    Thank you for the responses. So in essence, you were a proponent of the coal plant because of the other benefits it would have provided. I appreciate that view point. It's disappointing that there would be so much red tape involved with cleaning up a coal power plant.

    I vote that we do the following:


    Take the CO2 from BSI, combine it with the electricity from the local wind sources (since we can't transport it), and make carbon neutral fuel out of it. Portable fuel that everyone wants and needs.

  8. Corey,
    I think we are on the same page now, with a little clarification.

    When a plant is classified as “new” then they must conform to the new/current regulations. If a plant does major renovations they must upgrade as I spoke of in the previous post. If a plant gets a permit, and they operate within the law, what is done is done in most cases. A change is difficult without Federal interaction like the EPA changes made every year, or of course things like the current cap and trade legislation.
    More specific to your question, maybe :). The improvements to BSI were a voluntary effort to get BSII approved. BSII was not classified as a “major renovation” (Sierra Club case) to BSI and the improvements were in “good faith”. I am not sure what they will choose to do now. And I do not know if the EPA can make them do anything, or how the Sierra Club ruling will turn out. I do know they would have been done if BSII had built.

  9. Tony,
    Very interesting! I have always said South Dakota's wind potential is not in making electricity (that will be big, but not the biggest). The true potential is yet to be fathomed.


  10. Corey,
    The 9:16 post is mine

    Steve Kolbeck


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