Green America: Growing the Green Economy for People and the Planet

Coal Power is Just Too Dirty
April 5, 2006

Coal SmokestackIn 2005, an international study of power plant pollution named a TXU coal plant in North Texas as the dirtiest, most polluting power plant in North America. 

Alarmed at coal plants’ increasing pollution and climate-changing emissions, a coalition of Texas citizens’ groups last fall asked their governor to declare a moratorium on new coal-burning plants. The governor refused, and Texas energy companies have unveiled plans to build at least seven more, including one TXU plant slated to become the nation’s new top polluter. 

Reliance on a dirty, outdated source of electricity like coal is a Texas-sized problem that is not limited to Texas. Right now, power companies have plans to build more than 130 new coal-fired power plants in almost every US state. 

Burning coal fuels climate change and imperils our planet. Coal-fired power plants emit more carbon dioxide than any other source, spewing a full 1 billion tons more per year than all gas-powered automobiles. As the main “greenhouse gas” causing climate change, carbon dioxide traps heat in the Earth’s atmosphere, causing the planet’s temperature to rise, melting glaciers, raising sea levels, altering ecosystems, and increasing the severity of weather events like hurricanes and crop-devastating droughts. 

Just as serious are coal’s immediate effects on human health. Coal plants produce 99 percent of all U.S. mercury emissions, polluting 75 percent of U.S. waterways with dangerous levels of mercury, a neurotoxin that causes brain damage and other health problems, especially in children. Coal plants also produce almost all of the country’s sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions, as well as airborne particulate matter, which combine to trigger severe asthma attacks. Studies show that repeated exposure to such pollutants can damage the lungs as much as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. 

Power companies do not have to rely solely on a source of fuel that damages human health, climate, and the safety of air and water. When states have required companies by law to increase their production of clean, renewable energy, they have been able to do so easily and affordably. 

In fact, it was a different Texas governor – George W. Bush – who in 1999 signed what was at the time one of the first state-level mandates for renewable energy production in the nation. The mandate, known as a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), required Texas utilities to produce 2,000 megawatts of renewable energy per year within a decade (2.2 percent of Texas’ total energy production).

Even with such a modest goal, the Texas RPS succeeded in making that state the third-largest installer of wind power in the world, reducing state carbon dioxide emissions by 3.3 million tons. (What’s more, a U.S. Department of Energy study of the Texas success found that a higher target could stimulate dramatically greater success; the state has enough potential wind power to meet 400 percent of its energy needs.) 

Unfortunately, former governor Bush’s support for building a renewable energy infrastructure appears to have disappeared from his agenda at the national level. The Energy Act he signed in 2005 gave huge subsidies to coal-producing companies and was stripped of a Senate proposal for a nationwide Renewable Portfolio Standard. 

Faced with such inaction at the federal level, states have increasingly decided to lead the way on renewable energy, by establishing their own RPS. Today, 22 states require utilities to produce renewable energy, with goals as ambitious as 20 percent by 2010 in California, and 25 percent by 2013 in New York.  

Several national studies say we need to generate 30 percent of our energy from clean sources by 2020 to avoid the worst weather disruption from climate change. With renewables already generating 9 percent of our electricity nationwide, it’s clear we can do this, and succeed without resorting to nuclear power (which carries its own set of environmental and national security dangers). 

The time is right for all states to adopt Renewable Portfolio Standards with high targets – and to stimulate RPS success through real development incentives and real penalties if utilities fail to meet the targets. With clean power available, plentiful, and within our reach, we don’t need any more coal. It’s time to stop building dirty power plants that endanger us all. 

--Andrew Korfhage

 

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