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Highest pollution but best winds, Texas taken to task

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Texas utility power plants are the most polluting in the United States and wind power could play a key role in transforming the state from environmental villain into a progressive leader in clean power development. So documents a new report released by the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development (SEED) Coalition of Austin, Texas.

The SEED report, entitled "The Most Powerful Polluters in Texas," is stuffed full of figures about amounts of air pollutants released by utility coal, lignite and oil power plants that are not in compliance with federal air quality standards. Indeed, 63% of Texans breathe unacceptably bad air. The highest pollution levels are found in urban areas such as the Dallas/Fort Worth and Houston/Galveston regions, but El Paso and Beaumont/Port Arthur are also major trouble spots.

Three key facts frame the debate for reforming the Texas electricity generation system. According to the report, Texas utility power plants lead the US in releases of five critical air pollutants: nitrogen oxides; volatile organic compounds, particulates, mercury and carbon dioxide. Ironically, Texas is also "Number one in potential to generate energy with renewable resources such as the sun and wind." At present, however, Texas receives less than 1% of its electricity from renewable sources, the bulk of which are hydroelectric facilities operated by the Lower Colorado River Authority, also the state's largest buyer of wind power.

If Texas were an independent nation, its releases of carbon dioxide, the primary gas responsible for global warming, would rank seventh in the world, right behind India. Referencing the emerging scientific consensus about the need to implement binding agreements limiting greenhouse gas emissions, the report notes that "the easiest and least expensive way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions is in the sector of electric power generation. For instance, replacing the existing coal power plants in the state (at or only slightly ahead of their retirement schedules) with a mixture of 50% natural gas plants and 50% wind plants alone would result in almost enough total reductions of carbon dioxide needed to meet the obligations currently being discussed at the international treaty negotiations at very little cost."

The report fingers what it calls the "dirty dozen, "twelve coal and lignite power plants that are responsible for 75% of the criteria air pollutants emitted in the state. These facilities either burn coal imported from other states or lignite strip mined in Texas. "Texas spends $1.1 billion every year to import coal for electric generation. That amounts to hiring people in other states to send air pollution to Texas," comments the report. In it SEED presents a thorough indictment of the status quo and provides fodder for the renewables lobby, but it is short on specifics of how to reverse the threat to health posed by utility fossil fuel plants.

In contrast, the unaffiliated Texas Sustainable Energy Development Council released a report in 1995 which specifically called for an aggressive energy conservation and renewable energy development strategy. That report claimed that pushing clean power sources such as wind could reduce levels of air pollution from a current 200 million tons per year to 126 million tons by 2010.

Peter Altman, SEED project director, says his report's purpose "was to document that power plants really pollute." Despite this seemingly obvious fact, backers of renewable energy resources must continually deal with sceptics in a state where the public perceives oil refineries and other sources, such as cars, as bigger causes of pollution. The study is being used as a tool to rally citizens to support greater use of in-state renewable generation as "a way to clean up the energy supply as Texas moves toward deregulation," adds Altman.

Five per cent goal

The report comes at a time when the federal Environmental Defense Fund has been working with giant power marketer Enron of Houston to open up the Texas grid for full-scale competition in January, 1998. They are proposing draft legislation for consideration in the current legislative session. Though the draft has yet to be heard and faces an uncertain future, given a competing bill offered by large industrial customers, it calls for meeting 5% of the state's electricity from renewables by 2005 and caps any subsidy for wind and other renewable energy projects at $0.02/kWh.

The Texas legislative session is fast and furious as it ends on June 2. At present, however, it is unclear whether political support for a comprehensive deregulation bill that would include provisions for renewables will be able to move or will have to wait for the next legislative session in January, 1999.

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