The scheduled June shutdown of Delaware’s only remaining coal-fired power plant, and one of the state’s top polluters, has been delayed at least four years while upgrades to the electrical grid are made.
The ultimate cost of the extension will be passed on to electric customers and could impact Delaware’s clean energy goals.
The Indian River Power Plant has had at least one unit in operation since 1957. Only one of the original four units has been in operation since 2014.
The future of the power plant, and of Delaware’s energy profile, lies in the hands of a few corporations. NRG, the company that owns the power plant; PJM, the regional grid manager; Delmarva Power Co., which delivers the power to customers; and CONSOL Energy, the corporation overseeing the coal mines that supply the power plant.
In June 2021, NRG notified grid manager PJM of its intent to shut down the power plant by June 2022, saying the operation was no longer profitable.
However, in September 2021, PJM requested that the one unit of the plant remain open until enhancements to the electric grid can be made by Delmarva. NRG and PJM negotiated a “Reliability-Must Run” agreement to extend the plant’s life.
The enhancements required include rebuilding or upgrading four transmission lines and three substations in the Delmarva area.
Jeffery Shields, manager of media relations for PJM, said the company has no vested interest in keeping the plant open, and that the main focus of the company is to ensure reliable electric service.
“Specific to Indian River [unit] four, our analysis identified a series of transmission solutions needed to address reliability issues brought on by this deactivation,” Shields said. “Most of these upgrades will not have been in service before the announced retirement date, including some with in-service dates in 2026.”
The upgrades will expand the capacity of the electric grid across the state to ensure customers have reliable service once the power plant shuts down, said Ben Armstrong, director of communications for Delmarva Power Co.
The projects are still in the planning stages, but Delmarva Power has agreed to complete the projects in time for a 2026 shutdown of the power plant.
“If we are able to accelerate that process, we will do so,” Armstrong said.
The cost of keeping the power plant running is being passed on to Delaware ratepayers.
Beginning Sept. 13, the average customer will have a bill increase of around $6.45 per month. According to Armstrong, a majority of that increase is directly related to keeping the Indian River Power Plant in operation.
Coal-fired power industry lingers despite green energy push
Despite the environmental impact of coal-fired power plants, the industry is still not going away.
In January of this year, Bloomberg found that the global demand and benchmark price for coal was at a near record-high, symbolizing a strengthening of the market for the fossil fuel industry. In fact, coal generation reached an all-time high in 2021 despite public outcry to divest from the industry as a whole.
The Indian River Power Plant uses the Bailey Mine in Pennsylvania as its source for coal. The stock price for CONSOL Energy (CEIX), the coal producer that owns Bailey Mine, has been rising and it is anticipated that the company’s growth will continue.
The delay in the shutdown of the Indian River Power Plant could impede the state’s clean energy goals and exacerbate air quality problems within the state.
Delaware has set clean energy goals to reach 40% renewable energy by the year 2035. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, only 2% of the state’s electricity was generated from renewable sources in 2020.
In 2018, Gov. John Carney filed four petitions to the EPA for relief from out-of-state air pollution that “significantly impacts Delaware’s air quality.”
Dustyn Thompson, advocacy and outreach organizer for the Sierra Club Delaware, said the group is disappointed about the decision to keep the coal plant running.
“The startup-shutdown sequence for the plant is not environmentally friendly to say the least,” Thompson said. “We already have some of the worst air quality in the nation, and we can blame out of state emissions all day long, but when you have a coal plant starting up and shutting down frequently, that puts out an excessive amount of air pollution into our immediate surroundings.”
The Indian River Power Plant and its environmental impact have been a source of concern for decades.
In August of 2007, the Delaware Division of Public Health confirmed the presence of a “cancer cluster” in the area immediately surrounding the Indian River Power Plant, with a cancer rate 17% higher than the national average at the time.
The 2007 toxic release inventory, released in 2009, listed the Indian River Power Plant as the top emitter of toxic releases, with 88% of the emissions being acid gasses known to have harmful effects on human health and safety.
In March of 2009, the grassroots environmentalist organization Citizens for Clean Power sued the Indian River Power Plant for committing over 6,000 violations of state and federal air pollution regulations.
However, in 2011, the Delaware Cancer Consortium, the Department of Health and Social Services, and the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control commissioned a study on the potential link between toxin exposure in nearby residents. It concluded that the power plant was not responsible for the impact on people’s health.
In 2019, the Environmental Integrity Project confirmed that the Indian River Power Plant was contaminating groundwater with unsafe levels of toxic pollutants found in coal ash including arsenic, lithium and mercury among others.
While waiting for the transmission upgrades to be made, Thompson remains committed to steering Delaware away from its reliance on fossil fuels, particularly coal.
“We have an entire campaign designed to transition away from dirty fossil fuels because it is so toxic to health and the environment,” Thompson said.
One of the major clean energy substitutes that could be implemented in the near future is using offshore wind energy sources to fuel Delaware’s needs. The Indian River Power Plant has been discussed as a potential site for offshore wind power lines to come ashore.