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Energy under fire

Story and photos by Allen Best
Aspen Times Weekly
Denver-based Tri-State Generation and Transmission owns a 24 percent share of power production from the Laramie River Station at Wheatland, Wyo.
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When the administration of Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius denied an air-quality permit for two coal-fired power plants near Holcomb, in the state’s southwest corner, the nation’s heartland also became its cutting edge on the issue of global warming.

The basis for last year’s rejection of the two 700-megawatt plants was emissions of a greenhouse gas ” carbon dioxide. It was the first time global warming was cited as the reason for a power plant rejection.

What happened afterward, Sebelius said in a speech in Denver recently, was “nothing short of a political firestorm.” Kansas legislators three times introduced bills that would have overturned the decision. All failed, but not for lack of a majority. Coal plant supporters came within one vote of the two-thirds majority necessary to override Sebelius’ veto.

But the veto, though currently being contested in court, has stuck so far. And the message from the heartland, Sebelius said in a speech hosted by Earthjustice, the legal representative of the Sierra Club and other groups, is that there is hope. Kansans, she insisted, are “ready to embrace a new and different energy future.”

If the story is set in Kansas, Colorado mountain towns play a big role in the narrative. Most mountain valleys are served by rural electrical co-ops that were created in the 1930s and 1940s. Holy Cross Electric, which delivers electricity in the Aspen-Vail-Rifle triangle, is one such co-op.

Some 44 other rural co-ops in Colorado and three other adjacent states ” but not Holy Cross ” together aggregate into Denver-based Tri-State Generation and Transmission. Tri-State would be the major beneficiary of the two coal plants in Kansas, owning one outright and buying 100 megawatts from the second. Only 15 percent of the electricity would have been delivered to people in Kansas.

The rejection was a shock to the utilities. Environmentalists had strongly opposed the plants but Sebelius had talked only about a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants. Instead, her secretary for the department of health and environment, Rod Bremby, denied the air-quality permit.

The denial was based, Bembry said, on new and recent authority as established by the U.S. Supreme Court. In that federal case, Massachusetts v. EPA, the high court had ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency was required to treat carbon dioxide as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. The law is federal, but administered by the states.

The Aspen Skiing Co. in 2006 filed a brief in support of the suit against the EPA, which was filed by Massachusetts, 11 other states and three conservation groups.

Tri-State disagrees with the court decision. Jim Van Someren, the utility’s communications manager, said Tri-State believes the proposed power plant application “met every regulation on the books in the state of Kansas.”

The rejection is now being contested in the state appeals court.

Van Someren said Tri-State is assembling backup plans for a coal-fired generating plant just across the border in Colorado, near the town of Lamar. The company has purchased land and water, and is now collecting environmental information.

Nuclear also remains an option. “Our board has recently indicated an interest in at least seeing if there is the potential with another utility or utilities in the region to study the feasibility of nuclear power,” he said.

The amount of electricity that Tri-State wanted in Kansas was 800 megawatts. By comparison, a coal-fired power plant that Xcel Energy is building near Pueblo will be for 750 megawatts. Xcel is closing two older, less efficient coal-fired plants, one in Denver and the other east of Grand Junction, at Cameo.

Mandated by state law in Colorado to make 10 percent of its electricity from renewable energy, Tri-State is now soliciting offers from development partners for solar, wind and other renewable energy.

Like Colorado, most of the electricity produced in Kansas ” about 75 percent ” comes from burning coal, most of it imported. Electrical rates to consumers are among the lowest in the nation.

But the financial cost of electricity made from coal is now being filtered against the impacts to human health and the environment of burning that coal.

With growing talk of carbon taxes, electricity in Kansas might not always be so inexpensive, Sebelius suggested. With Kansas ranked 10th among all states in greenhouse gas emissions, Kansans now “understand this is a very precarious place to be,” she said.

Although there often is talk about “clean coal,” Sebelius contends there is no such thing. “It’s a total myth, it doesn’t exist,” she said. “We are at a minimum 10 to 15 years away from a technology that may or may not exist. Right now, all coal is dirty coal.”

The veto at Holcomb has launched a dialogue in Kansas about what constitutes responsibility. Her take is this: “We have a moral responsibility to our children and grandchildren to have a discussion ” one that had never been held before in our state.”

What matters in Kansas also is largely what matters elsewhere. Sebelius sees great gains in conservation and efficiency, what all experts say is the first order of business.

Kansas also can develop more wind, its primary renewable energy. Ten percent of its electricity already comes from wind.

“Even when the Legislature is out of session, Kansas is the second windiest state in the country,” Sebelius said.

Challenges exist, however. A way to get the new sources of electricity to homes and businesses is lacking, and electricity produced by wind must be shipped and sold quickly. “You can’t store it,” she noted.

But perhaps the over-riding limitation to renewables, Sebelius suggested, is the absence of a coherent federal policy. Wind has not enjoyed long-term federal tax credits similar to those enjoyed by nuclear and fossil fuel plants. Also needed is a national renewable energy portfolio standard.

“Wall Street is ready to put down some serious money, but they need the rules,” she said.

Research and development also is lagging because of the federal uncertainty. In the last four years, the federal government has invested $1.5 billion to $2 billion in renewable energy. “To put that into perspective, Americans spent $5 billion on Halloween last year,” she said.

Another upside of renewable energy and improved energy efficiency is that they create jobs ” jobs that can’t be outsourced. The coal-fired power plant, in contrast, would have produced only 100 permanent jobs in Kansas, Sebelius said.

But even with wind and other new power sources, electricity rates across the United States are sure to rise, she continued.

“People are beginning to weigh the costs of the future,” she said. “Will they be enthusiastic about electric costs going up 20 percent? No. But they are willing to have a dialogue.”

Speaking after Sebelius was a panel of energy experts. Ron Lehr, representing the American Wind Energy Association, made the case for wind. “Wind doesn’t need a breakthrough. It works today,” he said. If it won’t solve the problem by itself, it is part of the answer.

Tom Plant, who directs the Governor’s Energy Office in Colorado, emphasized the quick gains of energy efficiency. Improved energy efficiency is being targeted to provide half of the reductions called for by Colorado’s goal of 50 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

State incentives for solar installations, he said, are attached to requirements for energy audits, to help improve energy efficiency.

Randy Udall, former director of Aspen’s Community Office of Resource Efficiency, made the same point about efficiency in a different way. Efficiency, he said, “is what preserves prosperity.”

Udall also painted bigger pictures. He described the world’s 6.7 billion people huddled around a campfire, with those closest to the fire enjoying the heat and the easy living of fossil fuels. But in the outer ring, away from the campfire, are 2 billion people.

There is, he said, a moral and ethical obligation to look out for them, too.

He described the Kansas decision as “just an astounding turn of events.”

“Many people are coming to the realization that the energy foundation that is the basis of this civilization in the last 50 years needs some corrections,” he said.

The question for the United States, he added, is this: “Do we as a nation still have the right stuff?”


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