by Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
Colorado is now claiming national leadership in American’s transition to a new energy economy. Gov. Bill Ritter has quietly built a strong coalition including Colorado’s largest utility, Xcel Energy, to support the proposed Colorado Clean Air-Clean Jobs Act.
The proposal would require Colorado utilities to significantly reduce pollutants by retiring, retrofitting, or repowering Front Range coal-fired power plants by the end of 2017, and replace them with facilities fueled by natural gas and other lower- or non-emitting energy sources. While King Coal and its toadies continue to loudly protest, the proposal is moving to the legislature with bipartisan support focused on health, job creation, and environmental sustainability for Colorado.
Whatever the slick campaigns financed by the powerful coal barons might claim, coal is neither cheap nor clean. Ozone and particulates from coal plants kill tens of thousands of Americans each year and cause widespread illnesses and disease. Acid rain has destroyed millions of acres of valuable forests and sterilized one in five Adirondack lakes. Neurotoxic mercury raining from these plants has contaminated fish in every state and poisons more than 1 million American women and children annually. Coal industry strip mines have already destroyed 500 mountains in Appalachia, buried 2,000 miles of rivers and streams, and will soon have flattened an area the size of Delaware.
Finally, coal, which supplies 46 percent of our electric power, is the most important source of America’s greenhouse gases. Colorado’s forward-looking proposal would reduce nitrogen oxide emissions at coal plants by more than 80 percent over the next eight years, if not sooner.
Colorado is boldly showing America that our nation’s cornucopia of renewables and the recent maturation of solar, geothermal and wind technologies will allow us to meet most of our energy needs with clean, cheap, green power. In the short term, natural gas, abundant in the Rocky Mountain state, is an obvious bridge fuel to the “new” energy economy. Indeed, many large-scale wind, solar and distributed energy projects rely on natural gas to provide stable “base loads.”
By following the simple example set by Colorado, Americans could eliminate three-quarters of her coal-burning generators and save a fortune in energy costs. The benefits to other states would be even greater. Around 920 U.S. coal plants — 78 percent of the total — are small (generating less than half a gigawatt), antiquated and horrendously inefficient. Their average age is 45 years, with many over 75. They tend to be located amid dense populations and in poor neighborhoods, to lethal effect.
These ancient plants burn 20 percent more coal per megawatt hour than modern large coal units and are 60 to 75 percent less fuel-efficient than combined cycle gas plants. They account for only 21 percent of America’s electric power but almost half the sector’s emissions. Properly assessed, the costs of operation, maintenance, capital improvements and repair of these antiquated facilities make them far more expensive to run than natural gas plants.
To quickly gain further economic and environmental advantages, the larger, newer coal plants that remain in operation should be required to co-fire with natural gas. Many of these plants are already connected to gas pipelines and can easily be adapted to burn gas as 15 to 20 percent of their fuel. Such co-firing dramatically reduces forced outages and maintenance costs and can be the most cost effective way to reduce CO2 emissions.
Natural gas comes with its own set of environmental caveats. It is a carbon-based fuel and its extraction from shale, the most significant new source, if not managed carefully, can have serious water, land use and wildlife impacts, especially in the hands of irresponsible producers and lax regulators. But those impacts can be mitigated by careful regulation and are dwarfed by the disaster of coal.
Kudos to Xcel, Gov. Ritter, Colorado’s natural gas producers and environmental leaders for pioneering the road to a clean, robust and independent energy economy. All of American should follow its lead.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is president of the environmental group Waterkeeper Alliance.