July 14, 2009

Avoid coal, create jobs, save money

The State
Holman: Avoid coal, create jobs, save money
Blan Holman

Guest Columnist

A recent editorial admitted that a coal plant should not be built along the Pee Dee River, but warned that avoiding one would require sacrifice (“Everyone must sacrifice on coal plant plan,” Wednesday). But across the nation, investments in healthier, cheaper, job-generating energy sources make it plain that coal is the sacrifice. And it is a sacrifice we plainly can avoid making.

Building a coal plant today makes about as much sense as coating a child’s room with lead paint. The Pee Dee plant would emit 14 times more mercury than other plants, in an area already suffering from mercury contamination. It would spew thousands of tons of lung-damaging air pollution every year. And every day, it would inhale a mile-long train carting coal mined from decapitated Appalachian mountains, then exhale a mile-long train loaded with our money headed out of state.

Santee Cooper wants to raise rates to help pay for the plant’s $2.5 billion to $4 billion construction costs. But the real price will be higher due to coming controls on carbon dioxide, a main greenhouse gas. This plant would emit more than 10 million tons of carbon dioxide per year. If carbon costs $20 per ton, as appears likely, ratepayers will be stuck with an annual $200 million balloon payment.

These pollution and economic costs are why other utilities have sworn off new coal in South Carolina. As the editorial pointed out, Santee Cooper is unique in not having to prove to the Public Service Commission that a new plant is needed and economical. It also happens to be the only utility not pushing a new class of muscular energy-efficiency programs.

That is important because initiatives such as Duke Energy’s modified Save-A-Watt program — negotiated by Duke, conservationists and regulators — could displace the need for this plant. Duke will push a wide array of initiatives, with appliance replacements, energy audits and insulation upgrades being just a few. Far beyond just replacing light bulbs, this campaign will capture energy savings as a source of power.

Duke says it will capture 2 percent of system-wide power upgrades in four years, or 30 percent more power than the proposed Pee Dee plant could generate. Were Santee Cooper to boost efficiency by a mere 1 percent per year, it could forget the Pee Dee plant and save ratepayers millions if not billions of dollars, while creating thousands of local jobs for contractors hit hardest by the recession.

Renewable energy also could help knock out the coal plant. Just a few months ago, Sonoco announced it was replacing coal units in Hartsville with a boiler that burns woody refuse. Experts project South Carolina could develop a coal plant’s worth of renewable power over the next few years, utilizing crops, waste and river currents. Solar power and our state’s single-biggest renewable asset, offshore wind, could produce even more power, with new studies estimating that our coastal winds could generate more energy than 100 coal plants.

You don’t have to be a weatherman to know which way this is headed. Just over the border, North Carolina is developing the largest solar farm in the United States; Georgia, Delaware and New Jersey are pursuing large-scale wind power projects on their coasts. These projects mean jobs. Energy cropping, solar panels and wind towers require construction and skilled maintenance workers. Just ask the employees of General Electric’s wind turbine facility in Greenville.

Efficiency programs and renewable power provide a mature, proven path to energy security. Other states and utilities have proven this. We can do it here, despite those who insultingly suggest our citizens aren’t “educated enough” to want the lower power bills offered by efficiency. Nothing inherent in our climate, our people or our economy prevents us from doing as well as our neighbors.

What happens if, after maximized efficiency and renewables, we still need more power? Coal still would be the wrong answer. Santee Cooper’s own internal documents show carbon prices making natural gas, a much cleaner fuel, economically on par with coal. And like efficiency and renewables, but unlike nuclear power, natural gas could economically generate energy in the short term period said to justify coal.

In the end, most South Carolinians understand that coal would set our economy back, when what we need is a jump-start forward. The only thing the Pee Dee plant seems to have going for it is bureaucratic inertia, but day by day, even this is eroding under the flow of facts revealing the high costs of coal and the superiority of proven alternatives.

These facts are why citizens and companies have recently abandoned 100 coal plants in the United States. And they are why the Pee Dee plant should be number 101.

We have better options that would save money, conserve resources and boost employment. The only thing we need sacrifice is business as usual.

Mr. Holman is an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Charleston.

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