My colleague Jerry North and I wrote an op-ed about plans to build a slew of new coal plants in Texas. It was not published, but I think it makes some good points. Interestingly, many of these same points are made in a recently published op-ed reported on here.

Texas, coal, and climate change

You’re driving fast down a winding road. It’s nighttime, and visibility is poor. You think you see warning lights in the distance, but you’re not sure. Do you:

  1. Step on the gas, or
  2. take your foot off the gas

The state of Texas is presently faced with this dilemma. The warning lights of climate change are clearly visible to the scientific community, yet Texas is about to step on the gas.

The U.S. and other world governments have spent billions of dollars over the last twenty years on research to better understand our climate. This research has convinced most scientists that the earth is warming and that human activities are likely responsible for most of the recent warming. A recent U.S. National Academy of Sciences panel concluded that the earth is now warmer than at any time in the past 400 years. Over the next century, warming of a few degrees Centigrade will bring with it the risk of serious, even catastrophic, impacts.

So what is Texas doing about this impending threat? Texas utilities are racing at breakneck speed to build more than a dozen coal-fired power plants. Burning coal is the absolute worst way of generating electricity as far as the climate is concerned. While combustion of any fossil fuel releases carbon dioxide, coal releases the most carbon dioxide per unit of energy produced. These proposed plants would dump hundreds of millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, adding to the global warming we are presently experiencing.

While no one disputes the need to ensure adequate electricity supplies for the state, the speed with which these plants are being pushed forward reflects the obvious incentives for the utilities. With present high energy costs, these plants will make piles of money. And it is also clear that regulations on the emissions of greenhouse gases, virtually inevitable after President Bush leaves office in 2009, will make it much more expensive to build them. As far as the utilities are concerned, the time to build these massive greenhouse gas emitters is now.

Those in favor of the plants raise the specter of rolling blackouts and energy shortages if they’re not built. Gov. Rick Perry, who fast-tracked the plant’s permitting process, wrote recently in the Dallas Morning News that “I, for one, don’t want to tell Texans to ration air conditioning …” This is a false choice, relying on the politics of fear to bully Texans into accepting poor policy.

Given that Texas is growing, how should we meet future electricity requirements? The primary constraint on the power supply is ensuring adequate supply when demand peaks, which occurs on unusually hot summer afternoons.

Rather than build more plants to handle those relatively rare episodes of high demand, there are more environmentally palatable solutions. Baltimore Gas and Electric, for example, has a program to install a switch on their customers’ air conditioner and water heaters allowing BGE to remotely cycle these energy-guzzling appliances off for 15-minute periods during peak usage. Customers receive a $40 credit annually on their bills for having the switches installed and BGE has peak demand lowered significantly.

Utilities can also pay business users who reduce their demand for electricity at peak times. And utilities can provide financial incentives for customers to install energy saving appliances, programmable thermostats, compact fluorescent light bulbs, and a host of other energy-saving devices. These all solve the problem of meeting peak demand without building new plants.

Investing in coal-fired power plants only makes financial sense if the plants run for 40 to 50 years. If we find out within the next decade or two that we are facing a climatic disaster — and that’s a very real possibility — these plants will have to be scrapped and new, non-emitting plants built. Customers will then be paying off the prematurely shutdown plants while paying for the new plants. If you think electricity is expensive now, you do not want to be a customer if that happens.

In addition, the utilities are gambling that whatever plants can be built now will be “grandfathered” from whatever greenhouse gas regulations are adopted. This is by no means a sure thing. There is considerable anger at Texas because of this strategy, particularly in states like California that are actively working to reduce their emissions. A recent editorial in Science magazine argued that Congress should pass legislation that would specifically eliminate the grandfathering any coal-fired plants built after 2006. If such legislation is passed, it would completely change the economics of the plants. Coal would no longer provide cheap electricity for our state.

The warning lights of climate change are clearly visible — we should not be stepping on the accelerator by building more coal-fired power plants. Rather, let’s take a deep breath and take our foot off the gas. We need to soberly consider all our options before we commit ourselves to 40 years of coal combustion. Let’s hope the upcoming session of the Texas legislature puts an end to this rush.

Gov. Perry and all Texans need to consider not just air conditioning next summer, but the kind of world we want to leave our children.