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Xcel clean energy plan: Poll shows wide support for dumping coal plants

Xcel Energy's proposal to spend $1.3 billion to convert several of its aging, high-polluting coal plants to natural gas over the next decade in response to a new state law is drawing fire from coal interest and independent gas producers, but it's a big hit with Colorado citizens interested in cleaner air.

Including Republicans. Even if the conversion costs raise energy bills by as much as a 3 percent annual increase.

That's the findings of a bipartisan statewide poll unveiled Tuesday morning at a press conference held by backers of the Xcel plan, including state representative Judy Solano, the primary sponsor of House Bill 1365, also known as the Clean-Air, Clean-Jobs Act.

While the coal lobby has been blasting the bill and Xcel's plan as a giveaway to the gas industry and a windfall for Xcel (which plans to build its own gas plants and pass many of the costs onto consumers), average Coloradans support the move from coal to natural gas by a 3-1 margin. Some 76 percent of voters polled across the state approved of the shift, along with greater energy efficiency efforts, while only 21 percent opposed the plan. Among Democrats, the support ran to 89 percent; among Republicans, the result was still a solid 64 percent in favor.

Approval is almost as high among Western Slope respondents as it is for Denver residents familiar with the infamous Brown Cloud. "Among every single group we looked at, the support was strong," said Pete Maysmith, executive director of Colorado Conservation Voters. "Coloradans overwhelmingly support cleaner air."

Enthusiasm for natural gas diminished only slightly, Maysmith noted, when those polled were asked about projected electricity cost increases of as much as 3 percent a year. Nearly two-thirds of the 500 respondents also rejected coal-industry arguments opposing the plan.

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Health officials have long associated coal plants with increased respiratory issues and maintain that the health benefits outweigh the costs of moving away from burning coal to generate electricity. "Everybody's affected by air pollution," noted Dr. Karin Pacheco, an assistant professor at National Jewish Health. "It has a cost. It's not just increased emergency room visits -- it's the parent who has to stay home with a child because their asthma is so much worse."

"We've been living with the Brown Cloud for years and years," Solano declared. "We don't need to. We can clean it up."

The Public Utilities Commission will hold a hearing in Denver on Thursday, September 23, regarding the Xcel plan, at which plenty of exhaust is expected from supporters as well as critics of the proposal.

For more on Xcel's long love affair with coal, see my 2005 feature "Carbon Loading."

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