Sunday, January 07, 2007

Eastern Prom Wilderness: The Petrochemical Prospect

It's a principle of ecology that every wild place supports an inconceivably complex "web of life:" a single cubic foot of soil supports millions of microbes, insects, and worms that collectively act to heat, aerate, and fertilize the ground, and a single sowbug relies on the soil moisture and nutrients that entire forests of trees and fauna sustain.

Then are elements of a landscape that have outsized influence on habitats and on a global scale: large river deltas, volcanoes, and glaciers, for example. To reflect on these incomprehensibly complicated natural relationships is part of the spectacle of any wild place.

We in Portland have a large-scale agent in the global environment right here in Casco Bay, visible from the Eastern Prom Wilderness. At numerous places along the trail, beginning just past the sewage treatment plant, but especially in the 200 yard stretch between the beach and the ledges where the trail curves to the right (southwest) around Fort Allen Park, the trail offers excellent views of the Wyman Station, an oil-fired power plant on Cousins Island.

Built in 1958, this power plant can produce over 850 MW of electricity for households and businesses throughout New England. It's Maine's largest single source of electricity, and also the largest single source of air pollutants like nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide, a cause of acid rain. Because the plant is older than the federal Clean Air Act, it was allowed to avoid pollution-control upgrades for decades. In 2001, the plant's owners agreed to a cap-and-trade regulatory scheme: continued air pollution there is now offset by pollution reductions elsewhere.

Air pollution is only one aspect of Wyman's ecological complexity, though. Because it burns oil (a lot of it), this power plant is connected with incomprehensible complexity to the far corners of the world: from Houston to the tar sands in the Canadian tundra, from the presidential palace in Caracas to the Siberian wilderness, and millions of places in between. And by way of Wyman, all of those places are linked to every light switch and appliance in Maine.

For a really mind-bending perspective of the Wyman, though, consider the almost 400,000 tons of carbon dioxide that the plant generates each year (for context, it's important to mention that even that staggering amount of CO2 isn't nearly as much as Maine's motor vehicles produce). The connections and consequences of that fact are harder to perceive, but the hiker can try to imagine Casco Bay one meter higher than it is today: a circumstance likely within this century.

Next stop on the trail: the Petrochemical Prospect continues in Portland Harbor.

Previously: Introduction, Trailhead, and The Beach

Link: FPL Energy: Wyman 4 fact sheet


Anonymous said...

You really need to get your facts right. Wyman Station is a Peaking Plant. It does not run 24/7, as your calculations would indicate. Wyman Station is a "standby station", used in the event of outages in Seabrook, The gas/oil fired plants in Canada, or in high usage instances when the weather is very hot or very cold. If Wyman Station were shut down, there would be a huge void left in the generation capacity for the northeast grid. If you had to deal with Seabrook or Canadian power being off line, and Wyman wasn't there to pick up the slack, you wouldn't like the outcome.

C Neal said...

Sorry, Anonymous, but the stated facts ARE straight: they come directly from Wyman Station's own pollution reports, which it sends to the EPA.

Anonymous is correct in stating that Wyman only runs during periods of peak load, which is rarely. If Wyman were shut down, there would be shortages of electricity. But increasingly sophisticated conservation measures make Wyman's use more and more rare these days: large electric buying cooperatives are now able to anticipate "peak loads" and ask their members to conserve electricity in order to avoid burning expensive oil at Wyman. The long-awaited "smart grid," which will provide more up-to-date price and supply information to customers, may soon render Wyman Station entirely uneconomical and unnecessary.

That Wyman still manages to belch so much air pollution, in spite of how rarely it's used, testifies to its creaking obsolescence.