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Applying Lean Six Sigma to the Environment

The worst carbon emissions power plant in the US?

6 min read

The Pareto chart is a common charting tool used for keeping your eyes on the most important issue for the problem you are trying to solve, and not getting distracted by smaller, less impactful issues.

If carbon dioxide is the largest contributor to climate change, then we need to focus on the largest emitters. As usual, the EPA has done all the work for us. I downloaded their annual greenhouse gas (GHG) carbon emissions report for 2011 (I guess they are one year behind, since this is being written in 2013).

Here is the Pareto chart for largest total reported direct carbon emissions in 2011.

The winner? Plant Scherer in Juliette, Georgia. They were actually the leading emitter in 2010 as well, so they are “repeat champions” (not in a good way). Atlanta is the nearest major city, but it’s unclear whether the plant provides energy to Atlanta, Macon, the area south of Atlanta, or the entire southeast region of the US. It’s also unclear who actually is responsible for the decision-making. The EPA survey lists the following corporate owners:

  • Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia (15%)
  • SOUTHERN CO (29%)
  • JEA (6%)

Georgia Power owns a portion of Scherer, and manages the plant on behalf of five other utility stakeholders, so we’ll mention them going forward (knowing that others are directly involved).

Plant Scherer in Juliette, GA with largest carbon emissions

It is extremely large. There are two 1,000-foot chimneys that can be seen towering over the pine forests from miles away. The plant generates the fifth-most power in the nation. They were also planning to build another stack in 2012, but I don’t know where they are with construction.

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More about Pareto charts

I often talk about the Pareto principle, which is the idea that teams should focus on the top 20% of the contributors to a problem, which will gain the most benefit, usually 80% reduction in the problem. We are always trying to maximize our impact while minimizing our time spent, so a Pareto chart helps keep us focused on the items that will give us the biggest impact. Even though this plant is technically less than 1% of the total reported emissions, we need to start somewhere.

One complaint with Pareto charts is that it is typically not normalized. Plant Scherer is one of the largest plants, so of course they will be one of the largest emitters. This is true. We could probably determine a good metric to use as a normalizer, such as tons of coal purchased, population size served, plant square footage, kWh produced, or boiler size. There is great merit to pursuing that analysis, and can highlight plants that are not as efficient as Plant Scherer, or possibly more efficient. (Note: they are not the largest producer of energy, so they have some opportunity for improvement).

In a manufacturing company, we often use the Pareto chart to determine where the most defects occur, where the most near misses or incidents occur, or where the most energy or water is consumed. These areas are often not a surprise to anyone, since they require lots of energy or water, have higher risk, have more people working in that are, or have higher output demands and are more complex. However, I see lots of people get distracted by smaller issues, and forget about the big picture of the problem they are trying to resolve. The Pareto chart is so simple to create, but so vastly underutilized.

My argument against normalizing the data is that the areas with the higher volume of production, or larger number of employees, or more opportunities for incident should be performing much better than other smaller areas, because they have such a large influence on the overall performance of the company.

Therefore, Plant Scherer should be a major focus area, since any improvements that can be made to their facility will have huge benefits to our total emissions. Even if they are the most efficient plant, we should continue to focus our efforts on them, until they drop out of the top of the list.

Other problems at Plant Scherer

Carbon emissions is not their only concern. Some people who live near the massive coal-fired power plant have filed a civil action against the owners. They have complained for years of ailments and cancer consistent with exposure to heavy metals found in coal.

Neighbors have also said that Georgia Power officials have contacted them about buying out their houses, so they can seal up the house and water well.  CNN has confirmed at least two houses across from the plant have been bought. Meanwhile, another 10 owners of nearby houses claim Georgia Power representatives have approached them with offers to purchase their property.

“Heavy metals that are in the coal ash, some of the main things that they can do to someone’s body is attack the liver, cause liver cancer, the kidney, the lungs, a lot of bad breathing problems,” Macon Attorney Brian Adams said in this news article. The plaintiffs are seeking compensation for their medical bills, as well as pain and suffering.

Uranium is also heavily concentrated in coal ash. Plant Scherer produces hundreds of acres of coal ash per year. The waste is stored in a 900-acre pond surrounding the plant. Over the past 30 years, several studies have found coal ash more radioactive than the waste from nuclear power plants. It was when Georgia Power sealed two nearby wells they bought that many in the community began to suspect the massive coal plant could be causing the contamination and the illnesses.

The other side of the story

If we look at the Georgia Power website, there are some programs in place to help residents reduce their energy demands. I’m certain they will argue that their massive size makes it hard not to be at the top of the emitter list, and that they are doing a lot of good things to reduce their emissions. They will also state that they are just trying to meet the growing needs of their customers by providing them a reliable source of energy to grow their business and provide comfort to families. This is true, the customers are just as responsible for the plants large size and emissions as the owners, so we need to focus on both of them. We need outside pressure and education to the customers and owners. Otherwise, will there be any sense of urgency? We don’t have time to wait until they make significant reductions at their own comfortable pace.

As an example, check out Oglethorpe Power’s Climate Change Position Statement, which sends a mixed message about what they are doing in the future. They acknowledge the potential impact of climate change, but argue that there is still scientific uncertainty (which there isn’t), and they want to focus more on carbon capture and sequestration, which is not proven or viable at this time from a technology perspective. They mention the need for renewable energy, but they only will support it if it’s financially viable (based on current finances that do not account for externalities), and it does not appear to be an area they are seriously considering. They seem more interested in doing more research on other technologies and more research on the problem, instead of actually solving the problem.

Next Steps

What can be done about this?

1) Determine which communities are served by the power plant, and get customers (citizens and businesses) to take more advantage of Georgia Power’s energy efficiency and renewable energy programs.

2) Put pressure on Georgia Power to install more renewable energy, which will decrease the amount of coal burned in the plant. In addition, this shift could greatly reduce their pollution and legal issues that they are dealing with.

I couldn’t find any environmental groups or organizations working on either of these two ideas specifically. If you have ideas on what we can do, or know someone who is a customer of Plant Scherer, let me know.

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