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Power-plant debate heats up
By Gail Binkly
Power plants seem to be growing increasingly unpopular.
While debate rages over plans to build a 1,500-megawatt power plant on Navajo Nation land south of Shiprock, N.M., some critics are challenging plans by Tri-State Generation and Transmission, Empire Electric’s energy supplier, to charge higher rates to build three new coalfired plants.
Two would be built in western Kansas and one in southeastern Colorado. Together they would produce 2,100 megawatts.
But a report by Western Resource Advocates, a nonprofit conservation organization, questions the need for the new plants.
“Tri-State does not need the capacity of even one of the coal units contained in the [Resource Development Plan], much less the full 2,100 MW of capacity of all three units, to meet the projected loads of its members at least through 2019,” states the Western Resource Advocates report.
The report predicts that wholesale rates will increase by at least 64 percent over the next five years to pay for the $5 billion project.
Empire Electric customers are already seeing an average increase of 4.47 percent starting this month because of an increase from Tri-State, based on higher costs of energy.
Tri-State has challenged the conclusions in the WRA report, arguing that there is a definite need for all the capacity the new plants would provide.
Jim Van Someren, a spokesman for Tri-State in Denver, e-mailed comments to the Free Press in response to the report.
“Since 2000 the demand for power across Tri-State’s system has grown at an average of 3 percent per year – with indications of even greater growth in the near-term,” the comments said.
“Tri-State’s existing baseload generation resources are fully committed; without the development of new resources, we are increasingly reliant on volatile, high-priced power purchases on the open market, which is driving up rates.”
Empire Electric has given its approval to Tri-State’s plan for the new plants, according to Doug Sparks, Empire’s member-services director. Empire is one of 44 member co-operatives supplied by Tri-State.
Sparks said Tri-State’s new plants will be needed because of growth in eastern Colorado.
“We here in Montezuma County are not the drivers by any means for these power plants,” he said. “It’s the Front Range.”
The member co-ops govern Tri-State, he explained, and each has an equal vote in making policy. “They have chosen to have a postage-stamp rate for everybody,” he said. “It doesn’t depend on how much money you have. You share equally in the rate hikes.”
He said it all evens out in the end. Rural areas such as Cortez were able to reap the benefits of infrastructure and plants that were built for other users.
“The [power] generation wasn’t built for Cortez, but we were able to take advantage of it,” he said. “Now it’s the other side of the coin.”
Sparks said both population growth and increased per-capita consumption of electricity are driving the need for more power plants.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, per-capita consumption of electricity in U.S. homes increased by 1,056 kilowatt-hours per person between 1980 and 2001, an average increase of 1.4 percent every year.
Total energy consumption in the United States increased 1 percent per year in that two-decade period.
In Colorado, total energy consumption increased by 1.9 percent annually between 1980 and 2001, while the state’s electricity consumption went up a hefty 3.6 percent per year.
Utah's energy-consumption increase was similar – 1.9 percent per year, with an average annual increase in electrical usage of 3.8 percent per year, according to the Department of Energy.
But among Empire Electric residential users, consumption has not increased dramatically. Over the past 20 years, per-consumer usage increased only from 603 to 612 kilowatt hours per month, a minuscule annual increase, Sparks said.
“La Plata [Electric] had a big jump in those years, but we don’t really have the trophy homes they do,” he said.
However, Empire added about 4,000 new customers in that time period, Sparks said.
Empire has between 12,000 and 13,000 residential users and roughly another 1,000 commercial users.
While Tri-State plans its new facilities, opposition remains fierce to the $2.5 billion Desert Rock power plant planned on the Navajo reservation.
Beginning Dec. 12, protesters began holding a vigil against the plant at its planned 600-acre site near Burnham, N.M. Navajo elder Alice Gilmore, who would lose her ancestral lands and grazing area if the plant is built, and supporters camped out in the winter cold to protest preliminary site work being done by people with Sithe Global, the company building the plant, and the Diné Power Authority.
The protest brought some publicity to the opponents’ cause. They have a web site, www.desert-rock-blog.com, and a video on YouTube.com (search under “Desert Rock”).
On Dec. 21, Navajo tribal police disrupted the camp, forcing the partici- pants to move and leading to legal wrangling over protesters’ rights.
On Jan. 3, opponents of Desert Rock gathered by the District Courthouse in Shiprock, N.M., before a scheduled hearing regarding a preliminary injunction that had been sought against the protesters by Sithe.
Speaking in Navajo, with her daughter translating, Gilmore said Diné who had been promised jobs at previous power plants and coal mines had not seen them materialize.
“The environment is being degraded,” Gilmore said. “The elders are a target of this environmental injustice. They’re just protecting the sites. They’re not breaking any rules or regulations. [Navajo President] Joe Shirley is exploiting the elders since they do not speak or write English. Once the land is damaged it can never be returned to what it used to be.”
Henry Dixon, father of Elouise Brown, president of Dooda Desert Rock Committee (“dooda” means no), said, “There is no compassion on the behalf of our own tribal government.” He said the Navajo police are policing the protesters instead of helping to ensure their safety in a tense situation.
Tom Johnston, Gilmore’s son-in-law, said Gilmore still has 47 sheep at the Desert Rock site, along with a little stone house. “Every time we try to go in there, [the police] block us. They say, ‘Only Grandma can go in there’.”
“The land is what gives us life,” said Alberta Dechille, another protester in Shiprock. “It is what is really ours from the beginning.”
But supporters of Desert Rock argue that the plant is badly needed for the jobs and income it would provide the tribe. They say if it isn’t built on reservation land, it will be built somewhere nearby, and the Navajo Nation will lose the income it would have brought but still experience the effects of any pollution. They also say Desert Rock will be one of the cleanest power plants ever.
In the end, there was no hearing Jan. 3 because the parties reached an agreement the previous day, signing a consent decree and stipulated injunction, according to the attorney for the opponents, James Zion.
The injunction, he said in an e-mail, “essentially orders EVERYONE to refrain from interfering with the environmental impact statement (EIS) work being done on site and to obey all criminal laws.
“The agreement is a ‘no fault’ one where no party agrees to the allegations of the complaint or the defenses I asserted,” he wrote. “The order assures that the Dooda Desert Rock Committee and those participating with it can enjoy their rights of freedom of assembly and duties to protect Mother Earth and Father Sky under Navajo Natural Law.”
Fueling the push for more power plants nationwide is increasing electrical consumption, both by residential and commercial users.
Residential consumption is encouraged by the fact that electricity is cheap enough that users don’t really notice a difference in their bill if they leave a light on or a computer running. Electricity flows seemingly by magic; it doesn’t run out, and it’s easy to take it for granted.
Sparks said one local resident who had been using solar energy told him, “If people had to live on solar for one year, we’d set the energy crisis back 40 years.”
“When you’re on solar only, if you use too much electricity it’s all drained out, so it’s a different ball game,” Sparks explained. “He spent a lot of time looking for appliances that don’t have those LED displays, that juice running in the background.”
That’s another reason electrical consumption is going up – everything from stoves and microwaves to cordless phones to DVD players and bedside radios now uses electricity even when “off.” Similarly, televisions use juice constantly to provide “instant-on” capacity.
Sparks said studies he’s read show that this “leaking electricity,” the background power used just to keep things humming, is equivalent to “17 full-blown power plants running 24/7 in the U.S.”
“Individually this may not mean a hill of beans to your electric bill, but it adds up,” he said. “That’s the toughest concept for me to sell to people.”
Empire Electric is pushing the use of energy-saving compact fluorescent light bulbs, he said. “You put one in and it might be inconvenient [because fluorescents can be slower to turn on], but if everyone did it, that in itself could eliminate the need for one coalfired power plant in the U.S.,” he said.
“Get everybody to conserve a little and you could make a change. That’s what we’re trying to push as a co-op. We’re not saying to live your life austerely, but just take away some of that excess. Why do you need three TVs in your house, all plugged in? That represents a load that’s constantly turning that meter. And appliance manufacturers – that’s one of my biggest complaints. We’re talking about energy efficiency and these guys are designing all these whizmo-gizmos for every appliance.”
But Sparks said Empire Electric supports Tri-State’s plan to build the new plants because the need is there. “Their base load is in the margins area. It’s getting dicey,” he said. “They don’t have a lot of wiggle room.”
Tri-State is especially concerned about its peak capacity, he said – the amount needed to handle surging demand at special times.
“The worst-case example, the worst day a year, is Super Bowl Sunday at halftime,” Sparks said. “That’s the peak for all utilities. People all run and flush their toilets at once. Sewer companies have blown lids off manholes from the Super Bowl flush.”
Tri-State now has to buy power off the grid to handle such peaks, Sparks said. He said after Tri-State builds the new plants it will have an excess supply of energy for a while, but it can sell the excess to other companies.
Much of the demand for electricity is coming from commercial rather than residential uses. A huge increase in demand in the San Juan Basin is projected, largely because of increased oil- and gas-drilling that requires electricity.
And Western Resource Advocates says much of Tri- State’s supposed need for more electricity is based upon projected oil-shale development in western Colorado and a US Biogen ethanol plant planned for Morgan County, Colo.
Tri-State in its comments acknowledged that 58 percent of its load growth in the last five years has been in “high load factor commercial/industrial loads” rather than residential.
Still, in the end it boils down to people’s demand for energy, a demand that can’t be entirely met by renewables such as wind and solar because of their intermittent nature, Sparks said.
“You have to talk about individuals,” Sparks said. “It’s all of us together. By changing to CFLs, if enough of us do it, we could summarily stop a power plant from being built. That’s what people need to understand. If we’re demanding it, it has to be built.”
Wendy Mimiaga contributed to this report.