Xcel's plan to convert its coal plants sparks an energetic debate

There was no shortage of opinions as the Public Utilities Commission took testimony from an overflow crowd about the state's energy future last week. The heartfelt, often contradictory pleas came from people riled or galvanized by Xcel Energy's $1.3 billion plan to convert several coal plants to natural gas to comply with a new state law severely limiting power-plant emissions.

"I am one of the dirty coal miners everybody's talking about," Rick Barnes of Craig told the standing-room-only gathering at the PUC's downtown Denver headquarters on September 23, while dozens of would-be attendees listened to an audio feed in other hearing rooms. "I think the PUC needs to put the 'public' back in the utilities commission and look at the cost to the community, not the benefit to Xcel."

The commission has been holding hearings around the state as it ponders how to best implement the provisions of House Bill 1365, the Clean Air-Clean Jobs Act. Xcel's proposal, which requires PUC approval, has been praised by environmental groups as a significant anti-pollution move and blasted by coal interests as a sweetheart deal that will cost jobs and hike energy costs.

Many of those who came from coal-mining country in northwest Colorado had a bone to pick with the legislation itself, which was passed speedily last spring. Promoters of solar and wind power, on the other hand, tended to describe the law and Xcel's effort as a necessary first step, swapping one fossil fuel for a less-polluting "transition fuel" on the road to renewable energy sources. And some speakers wanted to get on with the plan in order to stave off federal mandates to improve state air quality. "It's greatly in our favor not to give the EPA an excuse to write the clean-air plan," said Greeley Mayor Tom Norton, previously the head of the Colorado Department of Transportation. "HB 1365 keeps the state in charge of its own destiny."

But Darcy Trask, director of the Craig/Moffat Economic Development Partnership, told the commission that while the law's intent may be to shift control over air quality from the 202 area code to 303, Colorado has other regions and area codes, 719 and 970, that are being ignored. She insisted the plan "doesn't adequately address the impact on coal communities," overall job losses or the possible rise in electricity costs. Xcel has estimated the plan will require a 1 percent increase to consumers; other analyses range from 2 to 5 percent or more.

Health officials, pediatricians and others argued that increased costs would be more than offset by the benefits of cleaner air. Natural-gas plants produce half the carbon dioxide and only 10 percent of the particulates spewed by coal plants; the latter's emissions have been blamed for everything from asthma attacks and lung troubles to spikes in heart disease and cancer. Some studies have even suggested that children in high pollution areas have lower IQs and are more prone to suicide.

"Air pollution has a cost that's borne by every person in the region," said Karin Pacheco, a doctor at National Jewish Health.

Railroad executives, whose companies haul tons of Wyoming coal to power plants across the state, urged the PUC to proceed "very cautiously" in any move that would shake up the current energy mix. Other speakers painted a rosy picture of eastern Colorado as the "Saudi Arabia of wind," suggested that more jobs would be added than lost by the conversion projects, and pointed out that coal will still be used at some of Xcel's newer units, with more stringent emission controls.

"These coal plants are outmoded technology that should have been retired long ago," testified Alan Apt, a former Fort Collins city councilman whose coal-miner grandfather died at 47. "But coal is still going to be king in Colorado for decades to come."

With most of the misgivings over the plan focused on possible job losses or soaring energy bills, few of the comments burrowed into the actual details of Xcel's proposal, which includes incentives for the investor-owned utility to build its own gas plants rather than rely on independent producers. The independents contend that the PUC needs to look more closely at how Xcel's plan will boost company profits while passing on costs to consumers that could be avoided if Xcel contracts with existing producers.

But the PUC will have time to reckon with that and many other murky issues in the quest for cleaner air. The commission plans additional hearings on the plan before a final decision is due in December.

 
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