A baghouse that will reduce mercury and particulate emissions from three generating units at Gorgas is expected to be in commercial operation by December 2015.
In December 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency passed the nation’s first power plant emissions standards for mercury, acid gases and non-mercury metallic toxic pollutants.
According to the EPA website, the 600 power plants in the country that were covered by the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards had three years to comply. Alabama Power received approval for an additional year in order to have the necessary technology installed.
The baghouse, which is being constructed in an area previously used for parking, contains more than 22,000 filter bags — enough to cover 15 football fields.
“We are about 90 percent complete with engineering. We have procured all of the major equipment that we need for the project, and we are about 50 percent complete with construction,” said project manager Jackie Blakley.
Alabama Power spokesperson Michael Sznajderman referred to the baghouse as “the single largest construction project in the Birmingham area right now.”
Approximately 300 contractors are expected to be on-site at the height of construction this fall.
The baghouse is the latest in a series of clean-air improvements that have been made at Gorgas and Alabama Power’s other plants throughout the state in the past decade.
In 2002, Gorgas was the company’s first plant to have a Selective Catalytic Reduction system installed to cut back on nitrogen oxides. Between 2002 and 2008, SCR systems were added to Alabama Power’s seven largest coal-fired units at a cost of nearly $1 billion, according to the company’s website.
Another $1.7 billion has been spent to add scrubbers to nine coal-fired units. Scrubbers are designed to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions.
“The environmental controls on the plant now pretty much dwarf the actual plant itself,” Sznajderman said of Gorgas.
Alabama Power’s emissions of both nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide are down more than 80 percent since 1996 because of the nearly $3 billion investment, according to the company’s website.
Alabama Power produces electricity in a variety of ways, including hydro, natural gas and nuclear energy. However, officials do not want to see coal taken off the table because of the stricter regulations now being handed down through the EPA.
“We are saying that all of those options should be at our disposal so that we can meet the energy demands of our customers in the most cost-effective way. Coal is one of those ways,” Sznajderman said.
According to the EPA website, power plants are the largest source of mercury emissions.
The agency estimates that the new standards will prevent up to 360 premature deaths in Alabama while creating up to $3 billion in health benefits in 2016.
Sznajderman said Alabama Power’s customers can expect to see their power bills rise because of the baghouse project.
“This is ultimately a cost impact to our customers, which is why we analyze all of these projects and decide what is going to be the most cost effective way to meet whatever a new regulation requires. The numbers tell us that this is the best way. We will be able to continue to use this unit for decades, hopefully” he said.
According to statistics provided by Alabama Power, Gorgas Steam Plant employs 300 people, has an annual payroll of $18 million and paid more than $3 million in taxes to Walker County in 2013.