Can coal recharge your iPods?
GUNNISON – Can the West continue to grow in population, with ever-more electricity-consuming gadgets plugged in but without building more coal-fired power plants?That has been the fundamental question being asked in recent months in a half-dozen mountain valleys, including the Telluride, Gunnison and Durango areas.These areas are among the 44 rural electrical co-ops across the Rocky Mountains and High Plains being asked by Denver-based Tri-State Generation and Transmission to extend their coal-power contracts. Current contracts are at 40 years, but Tri-State wants 50-year agreements – and also a commitment to buy 95 percent of their power from Tri-State during that time.But is the added power really needed? And is coal the only or even the best option?Tri-State insists it can already see the cliff’s edge. It is already running its existing coal-fired power plants at full capacity and has recently been buying additional power from the spot market. In southwest Kansas, Tri-State proposes to build two new coal-fired power plants, using conventional technology – which is to say with high emissions of greenhouse gases. Each plant would produce 700 megawatts of electricity.A possible third power plant, this one in southeastern Colorado, could possibly use the cleaner-burning coal-gasification technology. Costs are estimated at $5 billion.
Opposition is being led by Western Resource Advocates. The Boulder-based group argues that Tri-State has sufficient resources to meet realistic growth in demand. It says more aggressive energy conservation could cut Tri-State’s demand by 500 megawatts. Also, Western Resource Advocates argues that the utility wholesaler could develop wind, biomass projects and solar energy.”We’re watching a great opportunity for local benefits slip away,” says Rick Gilliam, an analyst with Western Resource Advocates. Gilliam also contends that coal, if now generally cheaper than alternatives, will become more expensive if the nation decides to control the greenhouse gas emissions that scientists say are causing global warming. Western Resource Advocates also disputes the demand Tri-State says will be placed on northwest Colorado’s fledgling oil shale industry. Tri-State projects 375 percent more electricity will be needed than what the industry itself says it will use. Another utility, Colorado-Ute Electric Association, made a miscalculation in the 1970s, building a power plant at Craig for an oil-shale industry that didn’t materialize, forcing Colorado-Ute in 1990 to go bankrupt.Several years ago, Holy Cross Electric – which services the Aspen-Vail-Glenwood Springs area – opted out of a contract with Tri-State. A majority of Tri-State’s members have approved contract extensions. But Delta Montrose Electric refused. Commissioners in San Miguel County are asking San Miguel Power to demand more renewable energy projects from Tri-State.In Durango, directors of La Plata Electric approved the contract extension. One board member, Jeff Berman, said that he voted for the extension despite concerns. He said he believes La Plata can more effectively advocate for energy efficiency and alternative energy sources by a continued dialogue with Tri-State. The association’s director, Greg Moore, said contract discussions every five years allow potential revisions.
Tri-State has taken some relatively small steps, reducing its cost to consumers for renewable energy and also, in the case of Gunnison County Electrical Association, distributing 1,000 compact-fluorescent bulbs, as a way of stimulating interest in improving efficiency. It is also offering a $1 rebate on additional bulbs.In Gunnison County, the electric association used the county commissioners as a sounding board on a contract extension. The commissioners recommended that the contract be refused.”Tri-State can be changed, but it’s an inch at a time,” said Jim Somrak, general manager of Gunnison County Electric Association.The Gunnison County commissioners asked the electric association to refuse the contract extension. The commissioners, according to the Crested Butte News, also encouraged the local electrical association to pursue local efforts toward energy efficiency and local renewable sources. In late February, directors of the electric association are to vote whether to extend the contract with Tri-State.In an interview with the Crested Butte News, Lou Costello, a board member for Gunnison County Electric, spelled out the quandary he sees.”We have a responsibility to make sure your lights stay on,” he said. “I believe global warming is real. I’m sure many of the board members do, too. But you also have to be practical and realize there aren’t many options right now.” Wind, despite its promise, is not a good foundation for meeting base demand for electricity, he said.