The US power sector is set for dramatic change over the next several years, as electric utilities work to meet new federal regulations on...

The US power sector is set for dramatic change over the next several years, as electric utilities work to meet new federal regulations on mercury and other toxic pollution from power plants.

In the closing days of 2011, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its first-ever national standards for mercury emissions and other airborne toxins produced by burning coal to generate electricity. The standards were required under the Clean Air Act amendments approved by Congress in 1990, but were only finalized and issued on December 21.

“By cutting emissions that are linked to developmental disorders and respiratory illnesses like asthma, these standards represent a major victory for clean air and public health– and especially for the health of our children,” said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. She added that the new standards will “provide the American people with health benefits that far outweigh the costs of compliance.”

The new requirements will affect about 40 percent of US power facilities that don’t use pollution-control technologies already in place at more than half of the nation’s newer coal-burning plants. Those technologies are designed to reduce the emission of mercury, arsenic, acid gas, nickel, selenium and cyanide.

While most of the nation’s Republican leaders attack any new environmental regulations as “job killers,” the emissions standards will — by requiring significant investment in infrastructure in coming years — actually help to create thousands of jobs, according to the EPA. It predicts up to 46,000 short-term construction jobs and 8,000 long-term utility jobs could be generated by the new demand for manufacturing, engineering, installing and maintaining pollution controls.

The agency adds that the new standards will “level the playing field” by holding all power plants to the same pollution-control requirements.

Federal authorities next plan to meet with utility operators from across the country to discuss ways of ensuring that power supplies remain reliable and affordable as plants are upgraded. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) have scheduled a forum in early February to address those issues.

“With the significant amount of investment needed in the utility infrastructure regardless, these workshops will give all of us an opportunity to discuss the critical issues the utility sector faces,” said Philip Jones, first vice president of NARUC. “Many states have taken steps in preparation of federal environmental rules, so this forum will allow us to learn from what has already been done. It will also give state commissioners an opportunity to bring the concerns of our consumers to a higher level.”