CA Co(a)ld Pandemic

By Published On: December 1, 2005

In spite of all the lip service paid to renewables, the percentage of green energy in California has decreased while the percentage of coal-fueled power has increased. Not only has the amount of coal power feeding the state risen the last decade but California is expected to import more of it. Thus, more people elsewhere will suffer from the pollution generated from burning the black ore we use to fuel our factories, offices and homes. Not exactly a good neighbor policy. California is to its western neighbors what snow mobilers are to cross country skiers. Those of us on human powered boards are forced to inhale the stinking trail of exhaust left by the driver who noisily zooms ahead in the clean brisk air. The snow mobiler-like California-is happy and bright with lungs filled with far cleaner air. The skier-and states with coal plants, in contrast-are working hard, wheezing from the foul fumes. California’s coal-fired electricity-for all intent and purposes-is imported. It made up about 21.3 percent of the state’s energy supply last year-up from 16.5 percent in 1995-according to a rough estimate of the state’s generation by the California Energy Commission. During the same period, renewable supplies went from making up 11 percent of California’s generation to about 10.2 percent in 2004. The Energy Commission is unable to nail down exact numbers in its gross system power assessment of generation because power is traded-often more than once. Thus, tracing the delivered supply to its original source can be nearly impossible. In addition, the reporting rules for imported power changed in 2001. The annual estimates of coal power tabulated in the Energy Commission’s system power analysis beginning in 2001 are partly gross percentages. A handful of out-of-state plants-Four Corners, Navajo, and San Juan pulverized coal-fired facilities in Arizona and New Mexico-no longer have to provide the commission a breakdown of the power provided in state. However, Southern California Edison’s Mohave plant and the Intermountain plant in Utah, largely owned by the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power and other Southern California public power agencies, do because the two plants connect directly to the grid, explained Adam Pan, CEC electricity demand analyst. Pan said that the connection was like “a giant extension cord.” The out-of-state coal plants total 4,744 MW, according to the Energy Commission’s Integrated Energy Policy Report adopted last week. A report released December 1 warns there are 14,000 MW of coal-fired power plants at various stages of development across the west. The lack of protective environmental standards across the region allows Western coal plant developers “to benefit from the opportunity to sell power to the California electricity market without having to meet the state’s own clean air and global-warming standards,” warns “Clearing California Coal Shadow from the American West.” Environmental Defense, Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies and Western Resources Advocates authored the report. According to the environmental trio, the 2,250 MW Navajo plant is “one of the nation’s single largest sources of global-warming pollution, discharging 20 million tons of heat trapping CO2 gases each year.” LADWP owns a 21 percent interest in the facility. The 2,040 MW Four Corners plant, with Edison owning a 48 percent share, spews out more smog creating nitrogen oxides than any other plant in the US: 40,000 tons a year, the Coal Shadow report states. The 1,640 MW Mohave plant, slated for a shut down end of this year because of its high level of pollutants, releases 10 million tons of CO2 a year. It is also one of the largest Western sources of sulfur dioxide. Edison owns 56 percent and LADWP 10 percent. Some fear the plant won’t be closed because of high power costs. Coal is looking awfully appealing to many given its low cost in these times of high energy prices. Despite all the best intentions, the myopic bottom line of cheap coal remains entrenched. In contrast, renewable energy makes up a shrinking percent of the state’s power supplies. Wind power has risen slightly in the last decade, from 1.2 percent of the state’s generation to 1.5 percent, the Energy Commission found. Solar energy supplies from 1995 to 2004 remain flat at 0.3 percent of the state’s generation. Geothermal supplies dropped from 5.6 percent in 1995 to 4.8 percent in 2004. However, natural gas-fired supplies rose from 33.6 percent in 1995 to 40.8 percent last year. But, bets are that coal will take the power lead because of the unprecedented cost of natural gas. In addition, coal is abundant, a domestic fuel source, and less costly because its pollution fallout is excluded from it price tag. Sempra Energy, for example, has made a preliminary investment in a coal project in Nevada. However, most recently it has not found any takers for its potential output. The proposed Frontier Transmission Line, supported by the governors of California and three other Western states, would allow imports of so-called “clean coal” power from Wyoming into California. There is much debate over how “clean” the new coal supplies would be, whether the technology is viable, and its likely costs. “These technologies are very energy intensive, and their improvement is the goal of considerable research,” notes the Integrated Energy Policy Report. Promises of a yet undefined and unproven clean coal technology should not open the door to more electricity from this highly polluting fuel. Air pollution lite pressures will always be up against heavy pressures to increase profits. Thus, many will be left in coal-fired plants’ stinking wake, wheezing and seething. As the Coal Shadow report warns, the plants’ “pollution and environmental disturbances stay behind, sending a cascade of human health and environmental impacts across the American West and the globe.” -Elizabeth McCarthy

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