The Navajo Generating Station power plant located on the Navajo reservation near Page, Arizona has been emitting toxic pollution into the air and water for so long, there isn't anything unusual about a dark and frightening cloud in the vicinity of the plant. Navajo Generating Station (NGS) is one of the dirtiest and most dangerous coal-fired power plants in the country. What is unique about this particular cloud hovering above NGS is that this time, it isn't just pollution, and it isn't just threatening the people living near the plant. This cloud is a storm of financial calamity, and it is heading right for Los Angeles.
NGS is one of two coal-fired power plants that is partially owned by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP) and which provides power for Los Angeles. As I have mentioned before, Los Angeles gets 44% of our electricity from coal-fired power.
Coal is a dirty and outdated way to get power and overdue federal regulations are finally beginning to rein in the pollution that these plants emit. The DWP's continued ownership interests in coal-based power plants poses a significant financial liability to our city, as well as every one of us that pays DWP bills every other month.
Last Friday, the Los Angeles City Council vetoed what Vice President Al Gore called "one of the most forward-looking clean energy plans" he has even seen. Instead of taking a bold step toward a greener Los Angeles, the Council voted to continue chaining our city to a dirty and dangerous coal-fired future. The proposal would have generated more than $160 million annually for energy efficiency and renewable energy. These investments are estimated to create more than 18,000 sustainable green jobs for Angelenos.
The ball is now in City Council's court and they will meet Tuesday, March 30th to consider where to go from here. Clean energy infrastructure takes time to build. We need to start investing now to allow for a responsible transition away from the dirty and dangerous status quo.
As the council considers one of the most important issues in Los Angeles, it is important to identify exactly why the council's continued inaction puts us all at risk of drastic price increases in the coming years. The following is a brief summary of some of the different types of pollution that our power plants emit and the regulations that are going to cause our power bills to increase if we remain invested in coal-fired power.
- Coal-fired power plants are among the largest emitters of mercury, a highly dangerous neurotoxin that impacts fetal and infant neurological development. By 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will issue new rules regulating mercury emissions in power plants. NGS emits 602 lbs. of mercury annually and is the 29th dirtiest plant in the country in this category. The plant will spend tens of millions of dollars installing pollution controls to meet the EPA's "maximum achievable control technology" standard for mercury emissions.
- Coal-fired power plants are the worst stationary contributors to ozone, or smog, pollution. The EPA is developing a rule to lower the allowable amount of ground ozone pollution (smog) by nearly 30%. This rule was proposed to help at risk populations like the elderly, pregnant women and young children, who are most affected by poor air quality. Ozone exposure leads to airway irritations, wheezing during outdoor activity, inflammation, severe asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia and permanent lung damage. Coal-fired power plants are the worst stationary ozone offenders and will need to spend huge sums of money in order to comply with the EPA rules that reduce allowable ozone emissions to safer levels. NGS annually emits 34,744 tons of Nitrous Oxide (NOx), one of the main components in smog pollution. The pollution controls that NGS will need to install just to meet the NOx requirements will likely cost between 600 million and 1 billion dollars.
- The waste from burning coal is toxic and increasingly expensive to store. Coal ash is the toxic byproduct of burning coal. Currently, it is stored in giant, multi-acre open-air ponds near coal plants. Many of the ponds where this toxic material is stored do not contain adequate safeguards to prevent the toxic chemicals from seeping into groundwater supplies and poisoning drinking water. These impoundments are susceptible to disastrous large-scale spills. In 2008, a coal ash storage pond in Tennessee burst open, spilling one billion gallons of toxic sludge into communities and the Emory River, contaminating local water supplies and destroying homes. The EPA will soon release a rule classifying coal combustion waste as a hazardous material, making it much more costly to store.
- Coal-fired power plants emit climate-disrupting pollution. Pending regulations regarding greenhouse gas emissions (including carbon dioxide) will drastically increase the price of coal-fired power. For example, the Supreme Court decision MA v. EPA gave the EPA the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. In December 2009, the EPA declared that climate disrupting greenhouse gasses endanger human health and welfare and will soon be regulated and limited by the agency. NGS emits 20,071,580 tons of carbon dioxide each year, making it the eighth worst climate disrupting polluter in the country. NGS will be required to get permits to prove that they are using the best technology available to reduce emissions. The permits NGS needs will require enormous capital investments that will be passed off to DWP customers.
All told, the pollution controls for the NGS will cost hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars. These are just some of the reasons coal-fired power is going to become incredibly more expensive in coming years. What I did not get into in this post was the increasing cost of transporting coal, as well as various other regulations that will soon cause the cost of coal to skyrocket.
We live in one of the sunniest places in the world. There are abundant renewable energy resources in Los Angeles and throughout the Southwest. With the solar and wind potential we see nearly every day of the year, it is unconscionable to continue getting our power from a source as dirty and dangerous as coal -- especially when investing in clean and sustainable energy will create green and sustainable jobs for Angelenos. Investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy is a solution that benefits the environment, rate-payers and creates the jobs that will help get our economy back on track.
It simply no longer makes sense to keep sending our money to out of state coal corporations that are harming people with their pollution. We have an opportunity right now to begin making the investments that will move Los Angeles beyond coal, but the City Council needs to take advantage of the opportunity before it is too late. The storm is coming, and I sincerely hope that the City Council will act soon.