New $550m coal plant? Citizens group urges cleaner alternatives
Recently, a friend gave me a documentary called "Kilowatt Ours" which opens with the line, "What if every time you flipped a light switch, a mountain in West Virginia exploded?" In a very real sense that's what's happening - we currently burn 1,600 tons of coal a day, which is 3.2 million pounds of low sulfur coal from West Virginia. For every ton of coal, six tons of a mountain must be removed. Thus every day Gainesville causes 15,360 tons, or over 30 million pounds, of mountain to be shoved down into the valleys and streams of West Virginia. To date, this mountain top removal form of coal mining has buried 1,500 miles of streams. Millions of gallons of sludge waste are created and stored behind earthen dams, which sometimes fail. In the fall of 2001, one such failure contaminated a 100-mile stretch of the Big Sandy River in Martin County Kentucky; the EPA called it the worst environmental disaster in the Eastern US. The curious thing is no one has ever heard of it; when you drive up the interstate highways through Appalachia you won't see mountain top removal occurring--it is kept out of sight of most of us.
The next line in this documentary asks, "What if every time you turned on your air conditioner, a child in Tennessee got asthma?" Look no further than home for this one. Alachua County's asthma rate for children is substantially higher than the state average. Recently, a Gainesville High School student, Molly Burges, was one of only two students in Florida, and six nationally, to win a Young Epidemiology Scholars award for her research project, "Breathless for Power: Evaluation of the Effect of a Coal-Fired Power Plant on Asthma Rates in Children." Quoting Ms. Burges: "This study found that NOx [nitrogen oxides] contribution levels from power plant operations are a good predictor of asthma rates at local public elementary schools. Studies have found that power plant air pollutants, including particulate matter, ozone, sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx) and carbon dioxide (CO2) increase asthmatic symptoms."
Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) proposes to build another power plant to double their base load capacity--the least expensive and therefore most often used type of generator. Many points are debatable here. First, if conservation were a much higher priority, GRU would not need such a large expansion of capacity. Additionally, coal emits mercury while other fuels would not. Some options are upgrading Deerhaven 1, an existing natural gas plant; using biomass as a fuel source; and more conservation and energy efficiency programs.
The proposed plant, along with a proposed upgrade of the existing coal plant's (Deerhaven 2's) pollution control equipment, will cost more than a half billion dollars to build. This exceeds the current depreciated value of all the rest of GRU's power plants. The total cost to ratepayers over the life of the bonds will be approximately $1.25 billion dollars. In order to pay for this proposed plant, the excess capacity, estimated to be at least 100 million watts (MW) for the first several years, will be used for sales of electricity to other utilities. Ed Regan, a GRU spokesperson, has stated that GRU "burns to earn." The net effect will be that the people who own this plant, the citizens of Gainesville, will endure the pollution, while other communities get the benefit of the power generated.
GRU revenue provides almost 40% of the budget of the City of Gainesville--$27.2 million dollars last year. This is called the General Funds Transfer, which increases by 3% every year. While this keeps property taxes low (Gainesville has not raised the millage rate in 20 years) the General Funds Transfer also provides an incentive to Gainesville and GRU to seek increased sales of electricity. This unsustainable practice is at the heart of the controversy over the proposed new power plant. We all must learn to reduce our consumption of all forms of energy, including electricity, otherwise we are sentencing the next generation to a bleak future.
It is estimated that, through investments in energy efficient equipment and lighting, we could reduce our electrical demand by 30%. This is not even taking into account conservation measures, such as hanging clothes on a line to dry, turning off your water heater over night or shutting down computers when not in use. In addition to saving money, these energy-saving measures would decrease pollution and increase the chances that our children will actually be able to see glaciers at Glacier National Park (estimates are that they may all be gone in 15 years). Americans must learn to be less wasteful. Europeans, whose standard of living is comparable to that of the US, use one half to one third of the energy used in the US. Clearly, energy prices are going to continue to rise. The only way to avoid economic hardship for many will be to become more efficient and conserve energy. The straight-line, "business as usual" projections of utility analysts are no longer an option.
Global warming is real. The whole world, with the exception of the US and Australia, have realized this. The Kyoto Protocol, the first small step in addressing climate change, has been ratified and now, thanks to Russia, is in effect throughout most of the world. Coal and petroleum coke (pet coke), the two fossil fuels that GRU wants to burn in the new plant, are the most carbon-intense fossil fuels. This means that per unit of electricity generated, they emit more carbon than any other fuel. Not only is this a disastrous choice for the planet (remember "think globally, act locally"?), it could also be the worst economic choice for meeting our future electricity needs. European markets are trading carbon credits--permits to emit CO2 and other green house gasses - at nearly $25.00 per ton. In the foreseeable future it could easily cost more to buy carbon credits to burn fossil fuels than the fuels themselves cost.
In February of 2002 the city of Gainesville passed a resolution to join the Cities for Climate Protection Campaign. This resolution committed Gainesville to, within three years, inventory and forecast green house gas emissions, and develop and implement a plan to reduce these emissions. As far as I am aware, nothing has ever been done to implement this resolution. This should have been the responsibility of GRU staff. Mike Kurtz, the general manager of GRU, often says that he and his staff are "happy to follow the direction of the Commission." Why then did his staff submit a proposal to build a new plant that will basically double GRU's green house gas emissions? That doesn't seem to be following the Commission's direction.
GRU claims that a new plant is needed because our base load demand for electricity has exceeded our base load generation capacity since 1998 (Base Load Demand is the level of demand 50% of the time). Why did it take five years for them to decide a new plant was necessary? In 2003, GRU filed a report with the Public Service Commission (PSC) saying it planned to add a 75 MW gas turbine. In 2004 GRU suddenly decided that a 220 MW coal and pet coke plant (with a small amount of wood biomass added later to try and quell community concerns) was needed instead.
Last January I helped form a group, Citizens for Affordable and Renewable Energy (CARE). CARE asked the Gainesville Commission to hire an independent panel of experts to recommend economically viable alternatives to building a new coal power plant to meet our future electricity needs. CARE is responsible for those "No New Coal Power Plant" signs you've hopefully seen around town. After much discussion the Commission, on March 7th, passed a motion to hold a workshop meeting to discuss hiring experts to advise them. The date was set, then GRU suddenly discovered that the EPA had enacted new regulations--part of Bush's Clear Skies Initiative--that would require retrofit upgrades to the pollution controls on the existing coal plant known as Deerhaven 2. In fact, GRU had known of, and discussed these pending regulations, on numerous previous occasions. Suddenly, on April 25th, GRU insisted that, rather than a workshop, a special meeting was needed, since it urgently needed the Commission to authorize GRU to start the process that may result in spending $90 million dollars for this retrofit. Despite pleas from many in attendance at that meeting that the Commission not act in haste, GRU got what it wanted, as it almost always does. Remember the $27.2 million dollar General Funds Transfer? Why the rush? Well, it was Commissioner 'Tony the Tiger' Domenech's last meeting; on May 19th Jack Donovan will be sworn in to replace him. While reducing pollution is always a good thing and there are many ways to accomplish such reductions, the proposed retrofit happens to mesh with GRU's proposed new 220 megawatt coal plant.
Even GRU admitted that another option would be to convert Deerhaven 2 to burn natural gas, meaning that, like Tallahassee, Gainesville would be a coal-free city. This conversion, including a new pipeline, could be accomplished for $20 million dollars. While gas is much more expensive than coal, it is also far cleaner. In fact, to build a coal plant in Tallahassee would take a referendum approved by the voters! Do the Seminoles have more sense than the Gators, or do they just care more about their community's health? There are also other options such as a re-powering of Deerhaven 2 with cleaner more efficient technologies, as was recently done to the Kelly generating station downtown
I have participated in a series of meetings with a diverse group of individuals from various environmental and business organizations. The result was a set of recommendations to the City Commission for referral to the independent review panel. At this last Commission meeting, Commissioner Craig Lowe suggested this set of issues and a few others for study by the proposed independent review panel. He was immediately criticized for trying to "start the whole process over again" by Commissioner Bryant, and by Commissioner Braddy for lacking the courage to take a position on the power plant. This, despite the Commission having voted unanimously to create an independent review panel. It seems some commissioners just wanted to review GRU's plan, rather than look at other alternatives. I fear that a review of only GRU's plan would be a rubber stamp approval.
I am also a member of the Alachua County Environmental Protection Advisory Committee, which has been preparing an in-depth critique of GRU's proposed power plant. Hopefully this report will soon be approved and placed on the Alachua County website. Our main focus has been on the range of health effects this plant could have on this community as well as the financial and regulatory implications of the green house gas emissions it will produce.
Finally, the above mentioned coalition of environmental and business organizations is presenting a forum this Thursday, May 19th at the Matheson Museum from 4-7pm entitled, "Meeting our Energy Needs in the Future-How Will the GRU Proposal for a $550 Million Dollar Expansion Impact Our Health and Environment?" The forum will consist of a balanced panel of experts who will make presentations in their areas of expertise and take questions from the audience. If you cannot make it, the forum will be recorded for broadcast on Classic 89 (WUFT-FM). The City Commission will continue discussion of the proposed independent review panel during the afternoon session of their next meeting on May 23rd.
I urge you to stay informed on this issue and speak out for clean, affordable and renewable energy. If you want to join CARE please contact me at RobBrinkman@cox.net or 352-337-1757.
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