Thursday, September 27, 2007

Should Yellow Springs Decide Right Now to Sign on to a 50-Year Commitment to a Pulverized Coal Power Plant?

THE SHORT ANSWER: No. The contract is of extremely long duration at this critical moment in our history, when the future costs of coal-fired power are virtually unknowable. It's the wrong time for more coal. But, most importantly, we have not had an adequate process to answer this vital question with democratic integrity.

What We've Done To Research This Issue So Far: We've invited three detailed lectures from Village Staff and AMP-OH Executives, all helpful, but all supporting the AMP-Ohio position
Important Things We Haven't Done Yet: Conclusion: We Need To Take More Time on This Question

WHAT WE'VE DONE TO RESEARCH THIS QUESTION: During the past month, I have listened carefully to three, helpful and extensive presentations sponsored by the Village Council, all of which have suggested that we have little choice but to support AMP-Ohio's plan to build another, new 1,000 MW pulverized-coal power plant in Meigs County, along the Ohio River. We've had two 45-minute powerpoint lectures by our village manager on the basics of baseload power, and he used his presentation to strongly advise the village to pursue the development of this plant and to do so without delay. Most recently, on Thursday the 27th, representatives of AMP-Ohio (the non-profit electric power cooperative that represents us and over a hundred other municipalities in our region) offered a nearly two-hour long powerpoint presentation aimed at building our support for the plant.

I have learned a great deal from these presentations. I appreciate the time and expertise involved in them. I do not claim to know everything yet that there is to know. From these presentations, and from doing my own research into the issues, I do understand that the issues are complex, and people of good will can and will disagree about them. We have to consider competing values of affordability and environmental responsibility, and the data are complex. I do not believe that the people who support this plant are all "bad" people or right-wingers.

But, I've sat on two juries in my life, and read a lot of complex arguments in my day. In court, especially, I've learned that prosecutors can make a very good case, making their client's view of things sound sound water-tight, a no-brainer! But then defense attorneys can still undermine that case by discussing things that the prosecutor may be deliberately avoiding. And vice versa. It's only by hearing advocates from at least two sides of any controversial issue that we really come to a decision that has integrity. Even if you "don't like lawyers," even if the narrow decision being focused on, e.g., whether to sign on to this contract, winds up being the same in the end, it's still the right thing to do. The learning process may help us shape better future policies, as we move to related issues.

We've heard from AMP-Ohio's attorneys, marketers, and engineers, and they are professionals. They've made a compelling case, and I believe them to be people of good will and fair intentions. It has been made quite clear that we may very well be dependent on coal for the next 15-20 years to provide some significant part of our baseload power needs. It is also clear that we will still be using coal-fired technology every time we switch the lights on or our furnaces or A/C units kick in whether we sign on or not, at least for awhile. I understand that we are a more vulnerable to market-pricing and profit-making companies when we are not buying direct from our non-profit electricity co-op, and that concerns me as we keep an eye on affordability. We also know there is no "pure" place in this debate, unless we work to get off the grid altogether, and we're not there yet as a people. We will always have some "footprint." All that is clear.


LET'S HEAR WHAT THE NRDC HAS TO SAY: As was noted in the Yellow Springs News, the Natural Resources Defense Council has offered to send environmental attorneys from its Chicago office to give a presention on the risks of this plant, yet the village council has not made time for them, or any comparable presentations from any of the people of good will who are opposed to this plan--including the local, state, regional and national environmental groups who are planning to fight this plant's construction, or from the local citizens in Meigs County who are concerned about the cumulative effects of having additional power plants constructed in their region.

WHY 50 YEARS?I am concerned that we are being pressured to commit to a 50-year contract to build and maintain a coal plant at this time, when we are every day coming to an awareness of just how calamitous human activities are becoming to our global environment. Even President Bush now finally accepts that human beings are changing the global climate in dramatic ways. We will be required to support this plant, even if it never gets built or it gets taken off line due early to new environmental policies that may develop as the situation becomes more chaotic. That could be very expensive, but we'll be stuck with a 50-year mortgage.

REGULATIONS ON COAL ARE IN A STATE OF FLUX: I am especially concerned that this is happening at a time when 1) laws and regulations around fossil-fuel energy are in a serious state of flux, and 2) our planet may, in fact, be reaching a crisis point in terms of its ability to sustain human life. AMP-Ohio admitted in its presentation that it hasn't done much, and could do a lot more to encourage conservation. Indeed, local resident Bob Brecha pointed out that California residents use 40% less energy per capita than do people in the rest of the United States, partly as a result of the devastating Enron scandal (see article and graph). This plant would provide only about 10% of our needs. We can do better. Imagine if AMP-Ohio invested $4 billion dollars into serious conservation measures? Would we still need such a huge, coal burning plant?

I and many other local residents are concerned about several issues that we feel have not been adequately explored, especially from perspectives besides those who are already committed to building the new plant. Residents of Yellow Springs deserve to hear directly from the environmental and citizens groups who are expressing legitimate concerns about the feasibility of the AMP-Ohio plan. We need to know whether its ultimate costs to ratepayers have been fully estimated, what its impact on the atmosphere at this critical juncture in our world's history will be (especially in terms of carbon emissions, which were basically simply not included in the otherwise very detailed discussion offered by AMP-Ohio), and whether alternatives for baseload power, coupled with serious conservation efforts, are really as unreliable and impractical as has been suggested for making up the difference that refusing to sign on for more coal would represent.

The presentations by both the village manager and AMP-Ohio all also seem to assume that the energy market will remain completely unregulated, when serious re-regulation efforts are clearly underway. While complex in the details, re-regulation is supported by virtually everyone on all sides of the question: Everyone in Ohio, Republicans and Democrats, environmentalists and industry leaders, all agree that energy deregulation has been a complete failure. The regulation landscape is going to change, and soon, and that will almost certainly take some of the pressures off our current exposure to the open market, as it will make the long-term contracts we're losing again desireable to energy vendors.

MEIGS COUNTY: Additionally, we have NOT been informed that there is opposition from at least some residents in Meigs County, where the plant is proposed. Yellow Springs residents should know that there are currently 4 major, coal-fired plants within a 20-mile radius of the Meigs sites being proposed for new coal plants by both AMP and AEP--the corporation that so contaminated the air, water, and soil of Cheshire, Ohio, that it was forced to buy out the homes of most of the residents there. And currently several more plants, including AMP-Ohio's, are now on the table for the same small area of Ohio/West Virginia, plus at least one new mining operation for Meigs County itself.

Immediately across the river from Meigs, in fact, are the scarred, dead landscapes left where West Virginia mountaintops used to be; mountaintops that have been blown off in the pursuit of the low-sulfur coal under them. The environmental devastation left behind has been incaculable. Currently, AMP-Ohio has admitted that it has no policy regarding Mountaintop coal. They are suggesting that by signing on, we could, as participants, be part of a process that might, or might not, demand that no mountaintop coal be used. But so far the process has been very focused on short-term economic cost analyses.

While, of course, some governmental officials and economic interests in the area of this proposed plant are clamouring for the jobs, other Meigs county residents like farmer Elisa Young (whose family has farmed in Meigs County for seven generations), point out that the cumulative effects and potentially devastating consequences of having so many coal plants and coal mining operations in and around Meigs County have not been fully explored or understood. Young says, "My view is if power plants create jobs, and we have four that you can throw a rock and hit, we should be rolling in prosperity." Instead, Meigs is one of the poorest counties in Ohio--with 26.30% of all children living below the poverty line and amongst the highest rates of asthma, heart disease, and lung diseases in the state. The people there are wiping grit off their windows every morning, and wondering if they're going to be the next Cheshire.

CONCLUSION: We cannot in good conscience decide to go forward with this project without taking the time to become fully aware of these issues, and facing head on the complex impact that such a plant may have on the lives of our neighbors and our grandchildren. We have not yet done so. We ourselves may not be directly "downwind" of this southeast Ohio plant and the 6-8 other coal related industries that may potentially be operating there in 10 years or so, but millions of other people are, and, because the gases in the atmosphere eventually spread to everyone, our grandchildren will all live "downwind" from these plants.

I cannot support the one-sided process we've seen so far. While clearly we must make a decision in a reasonably timely fashion, certainly before March 1, we have access to resources that can help us make a better decision by that time. At this point, those resources are not being adequately invited in. We can do better. We are small, but our decision still has global impact. We must be better informed than we currently are about our alternatives.

One thing that is clear to me, if these "cleaner" plants are built with or without our further support, it's clear that we have already been a part of that process and we have an obligation to remain aware of its developments. We are amongst those communities who supported AMP-Ohio's process of exploring and proposing this plant. At the bare minimum, then, it's our ethical duty to insist that the older and even dirtier plants are in fact actually shut down--which, despite promises, has not been the pattern that most coal-powered entities have followed. The process has, instead, been largely additive--with new plants simply adding their tons of carbon and their more carefully regulated but still significant emissions of NOx and SO2 to the mix, with very few of the older plants being really taken off-line. Our grandchildren deserve a liveable planet if it is in our power to provide it for them. We must do our best for them.

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