Truckee utility district considers 50-year contract with coal-fired electricity plant
This week, the Truckee Donner Public Utility District’s board will meet to discuss a 50-year power contract tying the district to a coal-based power plant in Utah, a move that the board believes will provide clean, affordable and constant power for decades to come.
For more than a few years, scientists have pointed fingers at coal-based energy as a toxic industry and a major contributor to global warming. But coal proponents are saying that times have changed and coal is burning cleaner than ever.
Over the past 10 years, the portion of California’s electricity supplied by coal has risen from 16 percent to 21 percent, according to a study released by the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies, a Sacramento nonprofit, and two other environmental research groups.
According to the report, about 20 percent of the state’s electricity needs are met by importing energy produced in other Western states by power plants that would not meet California’s air pollution standards.
“California has supported out-of-state coal plants in the intermountain west that discharge huge amounts of global warming pollution and threaten human health,” said Vickie Patton, senior attorney for Environmental Defense, a western states nonprofit that co-authored the study.
Coal foes concerned about the upshot of 22 western plants currently in the planning stages say the projects will be the nation’s largest new source of carbon dioxide emissions. Carbon dioxide ” an unregulated substance released when fossil fuels, notably coal, are burned ” is the most abundant of greenhouse gases, the heat-trapping materials thought to be the cause of global warming.
But coal proponents, like those at Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) outside Salt Lake City, the agency that Truckee Donner Public Utility District is courting, claim that new technologies are allowing coal-based power plants to produce cleaner, more efficient energy than ever before, thus allowing coal-based energy producers to meet market demand without serious side effects.
“We are using the latest and greatest technologies and are putting less into the air than any other plant in the nation,” said UAMPS Project Administrator Tom Florence.
The utility district is considering buying into a UAMPS project beginning in 2012 that would allow the district to purchase coal-based power at cost for 50 years.
The UAMPS Intermountain Power Project currently has two coal-fired, steam electric generating stations with a net capacity of 1,800 megawatts. A third generating station, called IPP3, will be on line in early 2012, and is said by UAMPS to be the cleanest coal plant in the United States based on the amount of emissions projected.
The cleaning and filtering processes to be used at IPP3 will significantly reduce mercury emissions, Florence said, as well as nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter.
“But it’s sort of a misnomer to say ‘clean coal.’ It’s just cleaner,” Florence said. “It’s a matter of volume. A plant that’s burning this much coal is putting out enormous quantities of gas.”
“We think we can make coal a zero-emission fuel,” said John Grasser, director of communications for the U.S. Department of Energy’s fossil program.
Researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a multi-program science and technology laboratory under the U.S. Department of Energy, said advanced coal-burning technology exists to produce energy as clean and efficient as natural gas.
The new technology to be used at UAMPS includes giant sacks called baghouses that capture particles to be disposed of in on-site landfills, catalytic converters that combust particulates before they reach the air, and a “super-critical” process that pressurizes coal under steam and heat to destroy toxic elements before the coal is even burned, said Florence.
There is also another technology, called advanced gassification, that will not be used at UAMPS but which scientists at the U.S Department of Energy say will revolutionize the way the world burns coal.
In 2012, the federal government will unveil FutureGen, a $1 billion advanced gassification demonstration coal plant to be built in Texas or Illinois that will produce zero emissions and will also separate and sequester carbon dioxide, Grasser said.
“We’re hoping that we will be able to build these plants all over the world,” Grasser said. “This will be the ultimate power plant.”
Renewable energies such as wind, solar and biomass have been growing in popularity for their ability to provide for future needs by harnessing abundant natural resources. But use of renewables still only accounts for approximately 2.3 percent of the total electricity generated in the United States, according to SWCA Environmental Consultants, the national firm that reported on IPP3’s technology and impact.
The downfall is that alternative energy in all its forms is not yet priced competitively enough for widespread, everyday users, said Stephen Hollabaugh, electric utility manger for the utility district.
“If people really want us to look at these options, then we can do that,” said Tim Taylor, board director for the Truckee Donner Public Utility District. “But you are going to be looking at (utility) rate increases of 100 to 200 percent.”
But advocates of renewable energy point out that government subsidies were developed for a reason.
“I would completely disagree with [the district’s] assertion that renewable energy is more expensive than this coal plant proposal,” said Steve Clemmer, research director for the Union of Concerned Scientists’ clean energy program. “The price for a public utility to own a (renewable energy) project would be much lower than for a private company to do so, and with federal incentives in place, you could probably come down to $40 per megawatt hour (MWh) for a good wind resource.”
The district’s plan is to purchase entitlement shares and a fixed amount of power from UAMPS ” 24.1 megawatts annually ” for $35 to $40 per MWh. For any additional need, the district can purchase natural gas or green energy at market price to fill the gap, Hollabaugh said.
The district’s board voiced its confidence that coal would remain a cost-efficient commodity, but that’s a debate that has yet to be won.
Proponents point out that coal is such an abundant resource that in order for prices to jump, something drastic would have to happen to the market.
“Right now, we are producing a billion tons of coal a year and the industry can meet this country’s demand for 250 years,” the Department of Energy’s Grasser said. “There is plenty of coal and we have enough at current consumption levels, so I don’t think that there is going to be upward pressure on prices.”
But opponents both nationally and locally are not ready to accept that theory as fact and say that a market jolt is looming just around the corner.
“One of the key issues the proponents are not considering is future limits on CO2 emissions,” said Clemmer. “It’s highly likely that there will be policy within the next five years that will put a limit on emissions in the U.S. and will raise the cost of these projects by up to 40 percent.”