Year in Review

2023 Talking Points: Fallout from Belco’s soot

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Belco’s neighbours have suffered soot emissions from the Pembroke plant for decades, and while the North Power Station was supposed to bring cleaner electricity generation, the pollution continued. The Royal Gazette launched its Clearing the Air investigation on March 3 examining the plant’s problems and whether use of a cleaner fuel could be the solution. 

The investigation revealed that a 2021 expert review found the “most effective” way to mitigate Belco’s soot emissions was for the plant to burn a lower-polluting fuel. 

Launched on March 3, the investigation included our public access to information request to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources that unearthed 203 documents related to the energy plant and its emissions. 

It found that Ricardo Energy & Environment, a British-based global environmental consultancy firm, said the polluting events from the North Power Station, commissioned in April 2020, which dump soot on neighbouring properties are likely caused “at least in part” by the burning of heavy fuel oil, and which Belco continues to use as its primary fuel. 

Wayne Caines, the president of Belco and parent company Liberty, attributed the “unforeseen challenges” at the NPS to Belco optimising its engines to run on liquefied natural gas and fuel oil, but then using only fuel oil after the island’s first Integrated Resource Plan ruled out the use of gas. 

Belco told The Royal Gazette that switching from its 2 per cent sulphur dioxide HFO to a lower-polluting fuel such as light fuel oil has been considered, but that potential “significant” cost increases could fall to the consumer. 

Further investigation revealed that extra costs from partial fuel switches designed to mitigate emissions did in fact fall to the customer and The Royal Gazette questioned whether that was just. 

After an investigation by NPS lead contractor Burmeister & Wain Scandinavian Contractor, headquartered in Denmark, other solutions were implemented by Belco rather than a full fuel switch — piston crowns, shims and operational changes included — which have resulted in millions of dollars spent by the firm. Still, no ultimate solution has been found outside of switching. 

The Pati documents revealed that in 2021 electricity sector regulator the Regulatory Authority rejected a proposal by the DENR to amend the Clean Air Regulations to ban the use of fuels with a sulphur dioxide content of 2 per cent or more, such as Belco’s primary fuel, HFO. This move would have reduced emissions, the DENR said. 

In-depth questioning of the DENR resulted in a newspaper report in March revealing that the Minister of Health has the legal power to stop soot emissions from Belco by declaring them a “statutory nuisance”. 

Statutory nuisances include dust, smoke or effluvia which is prejudicial to the health of, or is offensive to, the inhabitants of the neighbourhood. 

The Public Health Act 1949 says the minister, Kim Wilson, if satisfied of the existence of a nuisance, may make an order requiring abatement. 

Neighbours of Belco, not least pressure group the Bermuda Clean Air Coalition, have vociferously complained about the fallouts, among other emissions, which have led to black deposits landing on their roofs and property. They have looked into the possibility of launching a class action. 

The Government said it was conducting a thorough investigation into the matter. 

While there has been no geographic study measuring the potential health effects of polluting sources in Bermuda, a number of residents have spoken out about health concerns they suspect are related to pollution. 

However, another Pati request by this newspaper revealed that Ricky Brathwaite, the chief executive of the Bermuda Health Council, during discussions with Geoff Smith, the DENR’s environmental engineer, said such a study could be explored. 

The DENR said it was still working to identify detection systems with which to create legislated or other limits on the soot fallouts. 

On April 12, we reported that Ms Wilson had passed the investigation on to the environment department. 

Reading of legislation showed that stop orders can be made under the Clean Air Act. In the case that there is a conviction for noncompliance with a stop order that continues after the conviction, fines of $50,000 per day that the noncompliance continues can be imposed. 

In a government notice posted in the Official Gazette at the end of June, Walter Roban, the Minister of Home Affairs, said that as a result of a breach of the Act by Belco, he would direct the RA to “commence appropriate actions”. 

Another Pati request by The Royal Gazette resulted in hundreds of documents being released by the Department of Planning. As a result, on April 21, we reported that the Department of Energy warned in 2018 that the planning application for the NPS may be “premature”. 

The purpose of an IRP is to allow public feedback and the resulting documents sets out the plan for all electricity generation developments in Bermuda. 

As it turned out, the legally binding IRP did not support Belco’s initial proposal to run the NPS on LNG. 

MAN Energy Solutions, the manufacturer of the NPS’s dual fuel engines, told us prior on April 11 that it was not surprised about the emissions, given its equipment is being run on HFO. It said the engines are usually optimised to run on either gas [such as LNG] or diesel fuel as the main fuel. It said gas infrastructure was initially planned. 

Burmeister & Wain Scandinavian Contractor refused to answer any questions regarding the NPS, such as who instructed the consortium to optimise the station for LNG and why it was optimised for LNG in the absence of any LNG infrastructure in Bermuda. 

In October, Mark Fields, the chairman of the RA’s board of commissioners, said the authority is to draft in a team of experts from the United States to block the pollutants. 

Belco has submitted a proposal for the IRP to the RA, which is reviewing it before making it public and then inviting other proposals. 

While the existing IRP does not permit LNG, the RA made clear: “New energy-generation sources will be considered in the upcoming IRP,” meaning LNG could be back on the table. 

The IRP sets a road map for 85 per cent of the island’s electricity generation to be from renewables by 2035, and further thereafter. Any fossils fuels used now are seen as a bridge to a renewable future. 

The RA refused to release certain requested documents in response to another Pati request from this newspaper. The Royal Gazette made a 3,000-word submission to the Information Commissioner’s Office calling for the release of the documents in favour of the public interest. As a result, the ICO has agreed to conduct an independent investigation. 

Rena Lalgie, the Governor, said in the Throne Speech that the Clean Air Act will be amended in this legislative session. 

The public will be fully consulted. 

Over the hills and FAR away… 

Belco sought an increase in the Fuel Adjustment Rate from 16.513 cents per kilowatt-hour to 24.517 cents. 

The request was granted by the Regulatory Authority and came into effect at the start of October. 

Fuel charges inclusive of first costs and supply-chain costs have increased worldwide owing to global events were referenced by Abayomi Carmichael, the RA’s chief executive. 

News of the increase sparked public outrage and protests outside Belco’s Hamilton headquarters. 

Walter Roban, the Minister of Home Affairs, launched an inquiry into the hike, saying it needed to be confirmed that the authority was operating “according to the law”. 

According to our most recent report, the Government has failed to scale back the hikes despite making a pledge more than two months ago that prices would fall “in the immediate future”. 

Belco bills issued to customers in December show that the FAR is still set at the 24.517 cents rate. 

Additionally, under the new price structure, customers who have installed solar panels, or distributing generators, had the Feed-In Tariff rebate they earn through returning electricity to the grid reduced from 0.2265 cents per kilowatt-hour to 0.131 cents. This number was amended to 0.1915 cents, effective January 1, 2024. 

The RA launched an inquiry in December into Belco’s operations, which it said it expects will result in a reduction in the FAR. 

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