Within the last month, both the EPA and six states announced their plans to sue the plants off Xcel Energy. EPA may proceed with a lawsuit against Xcel for making upgrades at its Comanche coal plants in Pueblo in violation of the Clean Air Act. Six states have sued Xcel to limit greenhouse gas emissions from their coal-fired power plants. New reports illustrate the renewable energy and energy efficiency industries’ proven cost effective reliability. Yet Xcel Energy is still pushing to build Colorado’s largest coal-fired power plant in Pueblo- next to the plants under investigation by the EPA.
Half of electric generation in the U.S. comes from coal. In Colorado, it is closer to 80 percent. Coal-fired power plants are the largest single unregulated industrial emitters of mercury, a potent neurotoxin, and carbon dioxide, the primary ingredient in global climate change. Neither state nor federal governments have regulated these dangerous pollutants. In 2001, the electricity sector emitted 39 percent of the United States’ global warming pollution, 22 percent of smog-forming nitrogen oxides, 8 percent of health-threatening small particulates, and 69 percent of sulfur dioxide. Coal fired plants exacerbate environmental costs facing our society, including climate change, acid rain, mercury fish poisoning, National Park haze, and pollution from mining. None of these costs are factored into the supposed cheap price of coal.
According to newspaper reports, the EPA enforcement agenda represents five years of preparation to identify alleged violations of the “new source review” requirements of the Clean Air Act. Xcel Energy has refused to install any of the ‘scrubbing’ technology necessary to curb pollution from their Colorado coal plants. Instead, they have spent money to lobby the Bush administration to weaken the Clean Air Act’s safeguards.
The second lawsuit reportedly comes from multiple states against large utilities they contend are the nation’s largest emitters of carbon dioxide. The suit demands substantial pollution cuts by the companies in the form of carbon dioxide emissions, but does not seek monetary damages.
What are Xcel Energy’s plans in reaction to the rising legal tide against the dinosaurs of the electric industry? To attempt to build the largest coal fired plant in Colorado. The plant’s estimated one billion dollar price tag would be paid for up-front by Colorado consumers, who will then be charged again for the electricity, all without Xcel having to compete against other technologies. The Colorado Public Utilities Commission is evaluating this plan right now.
This summer, two major reports have been released comparing fossil fuel energy development (termed ‘business as usual’) with using energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies as a proportionate share of the electric load. Both point to the same conclusion- America, but especially the West, can safely, reliably, and cost effectively transition to an electric market that is one-fifth to one-quarter renewable energy based, while trimming system capacity, demand, and pollution.
It is often assumed that such an increase in energy efficiency and renewable energy use would be costly. The analysis by Synapse Energy Economics, Inc., however, showed that a shift to cleaner electricity (‘balanced case’) would save hundreds of billions of dollars over the next two decades while reducing global warming emissions from the electricity sector by 40% below business-as-usual levels. Using the Energy Information Administration numbers for technology and fuel costs, the Balanced Case projected saving consumers money within a few years, and by 2025 annual savings would amount to about $36 billion.
The Balanced Energy Plan for the West, researched by Colorado’s Western Resource Advocates, used Xcel Energy’s industry modeling software to compare scenarios of different mixes of conventional fossil fuel increases versus increases in a diverse mix of renewable energy and energy efficient technologies. The study found that the intermountain west could profitably and reliably increase renewable energy from three to twenty-one percent by 2020, while reducing the cost of providing electricity to the region by $2 billion per year.
The choice is overwhelmingly clear for consumers, governments, and economic and energy experts- anyone not working for Xcel Energy. The wind has shifted. Between climate change and Clean Air Act lawsuits, government regulation of pollutants, the increasing risks and costs of fossil fuels, and the proof that energy efficiency and renewable energy work in balancing the electric load, a new coal plant will be a fifty year barrier to Colorado’s energy future. The only question remaining is when will Xcel Energy stop wasting their energy fighting the change that will happen with or without their cooperation and lead Colorado forward?
Mark Detsky is a staff attorney at Environment Colorado, a state grassroots organization with over 10,000 members.