I learned much about Colorado's energy future while attending the Western Governors' Energy Roundtable in Portland in February, where the focus was California's energy crisis. I heard a lot about that state's flawed deregulation program, the drought on the West Coast, the high price of natural gas, and more on the debate of whether price caps were good or bad. But, when you sort through all of these factors that have come together to create such a "Perfect Storm" crisis in California, you realize the state has not built any new major power plants over the past 10 years, even though California is expected to grow 16 percent by 2010. Now, California is raiding all the other western states for power, and cheaper power at that.
In Colorado, consumers are insulated against California's power crisis thanks in large part to the fact that 85 percent of our electricity comes from low-sulfur coal.
While my natural gas bill has increased dramatically, my electricity rate is 11 percent below the national average because of our coal-based electricity supply.
California, on the other hand, refuses to build new coal-based power plants, and most of its new electric power is generated from natural gas, which has become prohibitively expensive over the last 12 months because demand for that fuel source to generate electricity resulted in a constraint on supplies.
As our nation's most abundant and cost-effective fuel source, coal prices remain remarkably stable. Over the past 20 years, the price of coal increased only 4 percent, compared to a 211 percent increase in the price of natural gas and a 51 percent increase in the price of crude oil. And, unlike these other fossil fuels, America is blessed with a 250-year domestic supply of coal, ensuring that we will not have to rely on foreign fuel reserves to generate electricity.
I strongly support the use of renewable energies such as wind and solar power and believe there should be incentives for continued development of these energy sources. However, as much as California emphasizes the use of renewables, less than 1 percent of its energy comes from these sources. Renewable energy is not yet technologically viable or economically feasible on a grand scale and can't be counted on as a basic, reliable source of power. Since the sun doesn't shine all day and the wind can't blow all the time, these renewable energy sources are best used to add flexibility to the power system, not to act as its foundation.
The results in Colorado are impressive, and, although electricity consumption from 1989 to 1998 increased 21 percent, criteria air pollutants (those affecting human health) decreased by 16 percent despite a 20 percent increase in population and a 63 percent increase in the Gross State Product. Nationally, this has meant almost a 70 percent improvement in electricity from coal's environmental efficiency since 1970.
Despite California's electric power problems and the nation's looming energy crisis, some continue lobbying for government regulations to have electricity from coal removed from our nation's energy mix, ignoring the fact that electricity from coal is essential to our economy, affordable and increasingly clean.
Abandoning electricity from coal now especially when we have made so much progress that will lead to even further improvements in environmental performance would be a huge setback and a waste of resources.
Every day we learn more about how to make electricity from coal cleaner and more efficient and we should continue to build on the knowledge that has brought us this far.
A number of demonstration projects around the country employing clean coal technologies are yielding promising results in improved efficiency and reduced emissions. For example, coal gasification turns coal into a gas, then filters out impurities before the gas is burned. Approximately 95 percent of the sulfur pollutants are extracted and then recycled into commercially valuable products. Once cleaned, the coal gases are burned in a gas turbine, then the turbine's exhaust is used to boil water for a conventional steam turbine-generator. Such revolutionary innovations in clean coal technology are helping to make electricity from coal a fuel of the future.
With electricity from coal as the foundation of our power supply, this essential, affordable and increasingly clean energy source is and can continue to be the bedrock of Colorado's economic prosperity, now and into the future. Maybe the next energy summit should be held in Colorado where we can highlight how an abundant supply of electricity from coal can work to the advantage of consumers and the economy, while using environmental technologies to protect our environment.
(Kit Kimball is Executive Director of the Western Regional Council, 303-534-5443)