Leader Blues

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

EDITORIALS>>State should reject plant

In the closing argument for a permit to build a coal-fired generating plant in Hempstead County, the lead attorney for Southwestern Electric Power Co. pleaded with the state Public Service Commission Monday not to put the company and its customers at risk by denying permission to build the plant.

He made a persuasive case that coal was the most reliable and maybe the cheapest way to meet the growing demand for electricity among its customers in western Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana. Soft coal is abundant in Wyoming and Montana and other generation sources are questionable. Nuclear takes too long, natural gas is abundant but prices are unstable, and renewable sources like wind and solar can help but are not yet reliable enough to meet a base load demand.

But the company makes a weaker case against the other options to building a coal plant that will foul the atmosphere for generations: existing merchant gas supplies and conservation. There is abundant capacity in the region now to meet the anticipated needs of SWEPCO and its partner in the Hempstead County proposition. A gas-powered merchant plant at El Dorado, for example, could meet the need as soon as transmission facilities are put in place. In other regions, notably North Carolina, power companies are investing in conservation practices and earning a return on the investment, which reduces demand and helps customers, too.

SWEPCO’s attorney acknowledged the existence of ample capacity among merchant suppliers, but he said it was just too chancy.

“If you force us into the market to meet base load, you’re putting our customers at risk,” the attorney told the commissioners, who must decide within 60 days whether to grant an environmental permit to build the big plant.

“Risk” is an apt description of the issue all right, but the risk of a higher imperative involves all of us and our grandchildren, not merely the ratepayers of the ArkLaTex who might some day have to pay a little more than is forecast on their light bills if the plant is not built.

The proposed plant would pump from 4 to 6 million tons of carbon dioxide every year into the atmosphere, where it will hover for a century or so and contribute, if ever so slightly, to the warming of the earth. We know that now; we didn’t know it 40 years ago, when the state was approving the existing three coal plants in Arkansas, which are pumping something like 30 million tons of carbon a year into the atmosphere. In the big scheme of things, the plant’s 4 to 6 million tons of poison is not that much, but are we to avoid simple good works simply because they are not miracles?

Congress shortly — well, as soon as there is a change of administrations — will regulate carbon dioxide for the first time and it almost certainly will impose huge costs on the new generation of electricity from carbon. All across the country companies are abandoning plans for new coal plants or being blocked by state governments. We hope the Arkansas commissioners as well will avoid the most dangerous risk, literally to mankind, and reject the plant.