“Clean coal” is a fantasy created by mining and power companies to convince us we can keep burning coal forever without harming ourselves, or the environment. The truth is, coal is dirty, harmful stuff. In the short term, we need to install scrubbers to catch coal’s noxious emissions before they make their way out of the smokestack. In the long term, we need to phase out coal-powered energy sources and replace them with cleaner alternatives.
The “dirty coal” problem is coming to a head at a number of power plants in Arizona, nowhere more so than the 40-year-old Navajo Generating Station (NGS) in Page. The state uses NGS power to pump Colorado River water into Central and Southern Arizona. The problem is, the plant also pumps massive amounts of pollution into the air – more than any other power plant in Arizona.
The Environmental Protection Agency has given NGS 10 years to install pollution controls needed to cut down on emissions, which is five years too long for my liking. Not surprisingly, the EPA edict has plenty of powerful opponents, who make reasonable sounding arguments in favor of keeping the plant as is. NGS supplies relatively inexpensive energy, they say. Installing the pollution controls could raise our water costs by 12 percent. And the plant brings 1,000 much-needed jobs to the surrounding area including the Navajo nation which makes up about 80 percent of its workers. Cutting back or closing the plant because of increased costs would bring economic harm to local communities.
Let’s look at the “inexpensive energy” argument first. Energy from coal-fired power plants only seems inexpensive because the costs created by their pollution are passed onto others. Imagine if your next door neighbor decides he doesn’t want to pay his garbage bill and dumps all his household waste into your back yard. He saves himself a few hundred bucks a year, but it’s at your expense. If some of his garbage is toxic, your family’s health could suffer along with your pocketbook.
NGS dumps its toxic garbage into the air we breathe, causing an estimated 16 premature deaths, 25 heart attacks and hundreds of asthma attacks each year. The resulting doctor and hospital bills as well as worker sick days cost millions of dollars. And how do you calculate the dollar value of loved ones who are sickened and whose lives are cut short by pollution that can be contained before it does any harm? NGS’s power costs look a whole lot bigger when you figure the external costs of its emissions, which some estimate to be over $100 million a year.
And that doesn’t take into account the accelerated climate change caused by greenhouse gases from coal-powered plants like NGS, which are among the world’s biggest polluters. Hotter temperatures in Arizona, flooded sea coasts, agricultural disruptions: climate change deniers can close their eyes and pretend they don’t see, but the economic and human toll of these rapid changes to the planet are all too real – and so huge, their costs are incalculable.
But what about those jobs that might be lost if NGS is cut back or closed entirely? The answer is, dirty coal-fired plants are on their way out regardless, and installing pollution controls will actually prolong their lives and create jobs in the short term. But there’s a better long term answer that’s good for jobs and the environment. NGS should become a dual energy site, using solar power to replace some of its coal power.
The Obama administration is pushing alternative energy, so most likely it would help pay for the creation of enough solar energy to close one of the three coal-burning units at the site. That would cut the cost of new pollution control systems by a third and generate jobs building and maintaining the solar site. If the solar installations are successful enough, a planned phase-out of the other coal burners could eliminate the need for pollution controls altogether and guarantee energy and jobs for the foreseeable future.
(Editor’s Note: Dave Safier is a regular contributor to Blog for Arizona.)