Carbon Loading

Xcelís solution to rising energy prices includes a lot of coal. Is that a bad thing?

"We don't like the plant, but being realistic politically, we saw very little chance of stopping it," says Howard Geller, director of the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, one of the groups involved in the settlement. "It's technically and economically feasible to meet the energy service needs of our growing population in Colorado without this new coal plant. But the rules and the decision-makers we have, in my view, would not get us to that outcome. We made this agreement to avoid two or three new coal plants."

Not all of the plant's opponents joined in the settlement. The diehards -- notably, Citizens for Clean Air and Water in Pueblo (CCAWP) and Glustrom's group, Clean Energy Action -- say they welcome Xcel's concessions but that the deal doesn't address their concerns about mercury, water consumption and carbon dioxide emissions. They insist that the move into coal is based on flawed assumptions about the plant's operational costs in coming years, and that the "savings" Xcel is promising customers from such a pricey investment in an antiquated fuel source could be elusive. In August they filed a lawsuit against the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, claiming that the state violated its own laws in approving an air permit for the new unit.

"It's fine for some groups to negotiate settlements with industry," says Margaret Barber, an English professor at Colorado State University's Pueblo campus who is CCAWP's spokeswoman. "They can do what they want. But that does not absolve the state of having to do its job in enforcing the law. The state regulatory agencies are headed by political appointees, and it's my belief -- how should I put this -- I have a feeling those appointees consider it their job to protect industry from the necessity of complying with the law."

Change in the weather: Climate activist Leslie 
Glustrom sued the state over the permits for Xcel's 
Mark A. Manger
Change in the weather: Climate activist Leslie Glustrom sued the state over the permits for Xcel's plant.
Carrots and sticks: Energy-efficiency expert Howard 
Geller says consumers got "half a loaf" from the Xcel 
Mark A. Manger
Carrots and sticks: Energy-efficiency expert Howard Geller says consumers got "half a loaf" from the Xcel settlement.

The state approved construction of the new unit even though the Environmental Protection Agency has charged that the existing plant is in violation of the federal Clean Air Act -- a claim Xcel disputes. Although the company pledged to reduce sulfur and nitrogen emissions as part of the project, that's not the way the enforcement process is supposed to work, Glustrom maintains.

"You shouldn't get to build a whole new coal plant for doing something you were supposed to do anyway," she says. "It would be nice to get those units cleaned up, but mercury is going to go up. They're going to double carbon dioxide and particulates. What they're doing is asking us to ignore everything else that comes out of coal plants."

Stutz describes Glustrom and the other plaintiffs in the lawsuit as critics on the fringe, as opposed to the "mainstream" environmental groups that signed the settlement. "There are always going to be some groups that think Xcel doesn't do enough, that don't want to see another coal plant built in the United States -- and who suffer from the misconception that we can meet our growing demand for electricity from renewables," he says. "It really takes a combination of a whole bunch of generating sources to make sure we meet demand."

The Bush administration's quest for greater domestic energy production and weaker environmental regulations has prompted dozens of new coal-plant proposals across the West. The groups that would customarily oppose the belching beasts know they have to pick their battles carefully; with state and federal regulators and the major greenies on board, there's little chance Xcel won't have its way in Pueblo. But if the critics are right, the company's customers will be paying off on a billion-dollar bad bet for a long, long time.

The need to boost power generation in Colorado stems from two inexorable forces. The first is the state's growing population, which nudged Xcel's customer base by 20 percent in the past decade. The second is that, despite improvements in energy-efficient appliances and the like, individual consumers and businesses are gobbling up electricity like never before. As a result, Xcel is now expected to supply Coloradans with 60 percent more electricity on peak demand days than it did ten years ago.

Company officials say it's not possible to meet the state's power demands without more coal providing at least part of the load. Natural gas is too expensive, they say, nuclear power is politically unfeasible, and the much-touted renewables, notably solar and wind power, are too unreliable for "baseload" generation -- plants that run 24 hours a day, 365 days a year (see sidebar).

"We have to build our power plants to meet the Easter Sunday crowd," says Stutz. "We have to look at what our highest peak demand is going to be in one hour of one summer day and how we're going to have the generation to meet that. You can count on the wind blowing about 30 percent of the time, but you can count on people using electricity 100 percent of the time."

Coal is plentiful -- and a bargain compared to competing fossil fuels. Wyoming's Powder River Basin now has the largest coal mines in the world; power plants back east are clamoring for western coal, which is far lower in sulfur than the Appalachian variety. According to the Colorado Geological Survey, Colorado has more than 16 billion tons of mineable coal and twelve operating mines, making it the sixth-largest coal-producing state in the nation; at the current rate of production, it would take 400 years to extract it all. Nearly half of the electricity that Xcel produces in Colorado, and 80 percent of the entire state's power, comes from burning coal.

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