Pasadena Water and Power's coal problem

Pasadena Water and Power's coal problem

Local utility must do more to replace coal with natural gas to meet power needs

(Fifth in an ongoing series on the performance of California utilities)

By John Grula 07/19/2012

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During a summer when National Public Radio has reported a large upsurge in the number of black lung cases among the nation’s coal miners, it is most troubling to learn that well over half of Pasadena Water and Power’s (PWP) electricity comes from a single coal-fired power plant located about 100 miles southwest of Salt Lake City. Black lung disease is often fatal and greatly diminishes quality of life, even in its milder forms.  It is caused when miners inhale toxic coal dust as they work. Black lung is just one of the many human and environmental hazards caused by the mining and burning of coal for electricity generation and other purposes.

In 2007, 67 percent of PWP’s electricity was derived from the burning of coal. In an integrated resource plan released that year, PWP stated, “[T]he citizens of Pasadena have a strong desire to reduce the consumption of coal as power generation fuel. PWP shares this strong desire … and recognizes that too much coal is burned to meet the needs of the city.” Encouraging words, but how much progress has been made since then in reducing Pasadena’s coal consumption? By 2010, coal accounted for 54 percent of PWP’s electricity supply, but last year that number ticked up again to 58 percent. So, some improvement has been achieved, but clearly we have a long way to go.

To put PWP’s heavy reliance on coal into some context, in 2010, the state of California as a whole received only 7 percent of its electricity from coal-fired plants, and even Southern California Edison, the huge, for-profit utility, also derived only 7 percent of its electricity from coal. Clearly, other utilities in the state have found ways to generate or buy electricity that do not rely heavily on coal.

To be fair, PWP is not the only utility in Southern California that derives much of its electricity from coal. In 2010, Anaheim Public Utilities obtained 61 percent of its electricity from coal-fired plants; Riverside Public Utilities — 46 percent; Los Angeles Department of Water and Power — 39 percent; Burbank Water and Power — 38 percent; and Glendale Water and Power — 30 percent. All of these utilities, including PWP, have long-term contracts with the same coal-fired power plant in Utah, the Intermountain Power Project (IPP). And that’s a large part of the problem. PWP and these other utilities entered into ill-advised financial and contractual obligations with IPP decades ago.  These obligations make it very difficult and expensive to walk away from IPP and its coal and shift to other power sources such as natural gas.

And that’s tragic, because coal is the dirtiest of all the fossil fuels and one of the most hazardous to extract. In addition to causing black lung, most coal mining requires human beings to work under back-breaking conditions in tunnels located hundreds, or in some cases thousands, of feet underground. Natural gas and coal dust explosions that can collapse mines and trap miners underground are a constant danger. In April 2010, 29 miners were killed 1,000 feet below the ground in Raleigh County, W.Va., when an explosion occurred at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch coal mine. Simply put, coal mining is a barbaric form of exceedingly harsh and dangerous physical labor that has no place in the 21st century.

When coal is burned to generate electricity, the hazards to human health and the environment only multiply. Burning coal produces twice as much carbon dioxide (the main greenhouse gas) per kilowatt-hour generated than does burning natural gas. Coal-fired plants also add toxic mercury and soot into the environment, a dangerous form of air pollution that can cause asthma and contribute to heart disease. Furthermore, coal often contains sulfurous and nitrogenous compounds that are released into the atmosphere when it is burned. These sources of air pollution can combine with water to form sulfuric and nitric acid, or acid rain. 

By comparison, burning natural gas is much cleaner, and while some carbon dioxide is produced, soot, mercury and other pollutants are not. For these reasons, and also because it is cheap and abundant, natural gas is now in much greater use for electricity generation. It is currently the source for 42 percent of California’s electricity. Unfortunately, it is the source for only 6 percent of PWP’s electricity. While PWP deserves credit for its ongoing efforts to increase its use of renewable energy sources (wind, solar, biomass, etc.), in the short term, it should replace coal with natural gas. The decades-old deal with IPP needs to be revisited, and PWP should redouble its efforts to find a way to extricate itself from using coal.  

In the meantime, what can the average Pasadena citizen do about this situation? Reduce your electricity use whenever possible. Turn off unneeded lights, use low-watt fluorescent bulbs and keep your air conditioner’s thermostat set to 78 degrees or higher. Consider installing a solar electricity system for your home. Finally, tell your city councilperson you want us out of the coal business once and for all.

John Grula, PhD, is affiliated with the Southern California Federation of Scientists.

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