Ascend Analytics Software Helps Coal-Burning Utilities meet new EPA Regulations

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The Cross State Air Pollution Rule, finalized by the EPA in July and set to go into effect in January, presents challenges for coal-fired power plants but Ascend Analytics software offers power producers an unrivaled ability to analyze coal inventories for emissions values. Ascend Analytics' computer modeling could help keep power plants select the right mix of coal to remain in operation under the new regulations.

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Coal piles may look like dark mounds of soot but software from Ascend Analytics that can pick those piles apart lump by lump may help utilities and merchant generators operating older coal-fired plants manage a sweeping set of new EPA emissions regulations.

And separate the real smoke from the hot air.

The Cross State Air Pollution Rule finalized in July and set to go into effect in January makes knowing the emissions encapsulated in coal more important than ever: the kind of precise information that comes coded into the advanced coal inventory modeling offered by Colorado-based Ascend Analytics, company president and co-founder Gary Dorris says. The high stakes in the new emissions rules make that advanced modeling a business necessity. The CSAPR imposes reductions of 73 percent for SO2 and 54 percent for NOx by 2014 and the Ascend software will peg emissions values for every shovel load of coal, some of those shovels carrying low-sulfur coal that could help plants meet the new targets.

With an emissions market set to open in January, power plant operators are looking at costs that could make older plants without scrubber technology uneconomical. At the same time, claims about which plants will close and when they’d close could be premature, part of a lobbying plan to derail the new regulations, or even a competitive ploy in a grid populated by competing producers, utilities and retailers.

Power companies can’t know the motivations behind every competitor’s plant closure announcement, but they must understand the true impact of CSAPR in relation to the economic competitiveness of their own coal-fired generation.

In some plants, low sulfur coal could be part of a solution for the CSAPR SO2 component, but the answer is often more complex than buying more of a particular grade of coal, Dorris says. “To be an economically competitive coal generator under CSAPR, you need to view all the options, including coal-fuel blending. That pile of coal becomes a lot more complicated than it looks,” Dorris says. “And what comes out of the smokestack is a whole swirling cloud of complexity.”

First plant operators would need to know how much low-sulfur coal they already have in their inventory and how much they might need to buy, a tricky set of calculations when coal is delivered in multiple train loads from multiple locations; Coal piles are not like produce stands with the broccoli and Brussel sprouts securely segregated. Coal piles loom as data-dense aggregates of source, grade, contract pricing, spot price, emission qualities, projected dispatch and storage cost.

Ascend Analytics PowerSimm will take that pile apart lump by lump and reassemble it in a model that gives utility managers a view of all those factors with emissions levels highlighted. While availability of low sulfur coal from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin creates a possible strategy for keeping older coal plants running, increased demand could skew the economics. PowerSimm users would be able to see a costs-and-benefits panorama encompassing the emissions market and scrubber technology investments set against years-ahead price curves for the low-sulfur coal.

With power industry lobbyists targeting the CSAPR mandates, utilities and generators have announced coal plant closures in many of the 27 states covered by the new rules. How many of the plant closures threats are real and how closely the operators have examined the underlying economics remains unknown. “Without strong simulations for emissions and confident price curves on low-sulfur coal, it’s hard to say which plants really need to close,” Dorris says. “Until you see the whole picture with all the details tabulated, you can’t really know the economics.”

When the SO2 and NOX rules go into effect, in their present form or with waivers and compromise, the posturing will end. Power executives will need to look at every pixel on every spreadsheet.

But they won’t have to turn over every lump in every pile of coal, Dorris says. Ascend Analytics has software for that.

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Rick Polito
Ascend Analytics
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