BRIDGEPORT, Conn. – Tiffany Mellers jogs behind her two daughters as they pedal their bikes along a ribbon of packed sand along Long Island Sound. “They are good girls,” Mellers said. “They deserve a healthy life.”
Behind them, a 500-foot tall candy-stripe smokestack, a fixture of Bridgeport’s waterfront for nearly five decades, rises in the distance. A third generation of residents is now growing up in its shadow.
But today this old giant is merely a vestige of the region’s coal-fired past. New England is virtually coal-free.
For some, the red-and-white stack of Harbor Station conjures memories of a prosperous industrial past. But for Mellers, it’s a reminder that this largely poor and minority city has borne a heavier pollution burden over the past half-century than its wealthier neighbors. Nearly 40 percent of children in Bridgeport grow up in poverty, more than three times the rate in the rest of Fairfield County. And 14 percent – substantially higher than the national average – have asthma, including Mellers’ two daughters.
Today, Harbor Station looks lifeless as Tiffany and her daughters play on the beach. Like most of New England’s coal plants, it now runs infrequently. Last year, it operated at only 4 percent of its capacity, down from about 86 percent in 2008.
Jeff Kohut, a lifelong Bridgeport resident, said the last time he can remember smoke spewing from the plant was two years ago, during a waterfront baseball game.
“Going back to the 1960s and early 1970s, Bridgeport was quite prosperous in an industrial sense. There were more factories and smoke-belching power plants,” Kohut said. “Even back then it was considered sort of the dirty ragamuffin step child of Fairfield County, so the negative environmental image goes quite a way back.”
A changing fuel mix
Last week President Obama launched a major drive to limit carbon pollution from power plants in a bid to stem climate change. At the program's core: A directive to develop federal carbon emissions rules for new and existing power plants.
New England, in some ways, is ahead of the curve. Many aging New England coal plants, which emit large quantities of soot and mercury as well as planet-warming greenhouse gases, have retired in the past decade or converted to natural gas. Of the six still connected to the region’s electric grid, two are in the process of closing.
Stringent environmental regulations and a steep drop in the cost of natural gas in recent years caused this dramatic change in the region’s energy profile.
The change comes with tradeoffs. Tax rolls will take a hit in some communities, while an increased reliance on natural gas has some experts raising questions about the role this alternative fossil fuel, which comes with its own set of environmental issues, should play in the transition from coal.
“Natural gas is killing coal plants, but more natural gas infrastructure may be adverse to health and climate in the long run. That’s the paradox,” said N. Jonathan Peres, an attorney for the Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation.
In 2000, coal accounted for roughly 18 percent of the region’s electricity generation while natural gas accounted for about 15 percent. In 2012, just 3 percent of New England’s electricity was generated by coal, while 52 percent came from natural gas. Another 13 percent was from renewable fuels, such as hydroelectric and solar power.
The New England trend mimics a nationwide one. In 2003, coal provided 51 percent of all electricity in the United States, compared with 37 percent last year.
“A collapse in gas prices and minimal load growth in the region have done a lot to displace what coal there was,” said David Schlissel, a regulatory attorney and electric utility rate consultant in Massachusetts.