'/> Uncommon Hours: To see what 'clean coal' energy from Holcomb II is really all about, Kansans need only look to the 'costly nightmare' in Illinois
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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

To see what 'clean coal' energy from Holcomb II is really all about, Kansans need only look to the 'costly nightmare' in Illinois

A Tale of Two Coal-Fired Utility Plants
Bob Sommer

As public hearings begin on the question of whether to allow construction of an 895 megawatt coal-fired utility plant in southwest Kansas, it’s worthwhile to consider the consequences for Illinois residents who agreed to a similar plan long ago. While most plans for coal plants have been shelved in recent years due to financial risks, one plant slipped by in Illinois, which is now causing many to second guess the decision to invest in such a risky energy source. Notably, former Gov. Rod Blagojevich played a significant role in promoting the project.

Promised cheap energy from so-called “clean coal,” communities throughout Illinois and the Midwest may find themselves with higher utility bills after costs for plant construction more than doubled from the original estimates, according to a report in The Chicago Tribune. Additionally, the 800 megawatt Prairie State Energy Campus plant will be anything but “clean.” Pumping millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually, it will be the single largest contributor to greenhouse gases built in the U.S. in the last 25 years.

Further, most of the new jobs associated with the plant will not be at the utility, but rather at the nearby Peabody Energy coal mining operation. For Kansans this is important for a couple of reasons. There are no similar prospects for mining jobs in Kansas, and the estimated 200 new long-term jobs promised by Sunflower Electric pale before the possibility of thousands of jobs that a clear cut focus on wind and other renewable energy sources might bring to the state. But, if we fill the grid with coal-fired electrons, we impair our ability to develop fully clean energy resources by cutting into wind’s market share.

The close links between mining and energy production are hardly limited to Illinois. Big coal has a big interest in seeing a new Sunflower plant built in Kansas. Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, a Colorado-based energy consortium that has promised to purchase electricity from Kansas and numbers Sunflower among its members, also belongs to the Western Fuels Association, which owns mines in Wyoming—where coal would be purchased for Holcomb II. And the last time Sunflower attempted to gain approval for this plant through lobbying efforts in the legislature, Peabody Energy, which operates coal mines in Wyoming, Colorado, and the Southwest, underwrote some of the advertising to promote the plant. The takeaways here are that the economic benefits will leave the state, along with most of the electricity, while the costs and environmental damage will remain, and the parties who most tout the plant’s benefits to Kansans have multiple interests in promoting coal over other energy options.

Which suggests another lesson from the Illinois morality tale—namely, that building vast coal-burning energy plants is an investment in the past, not the future. As awareness has grown of the imminent threat that carbon emissions on this scale pose to our environment and way of life, similar construction plans have been scrapped all over the country. A recent survey also revealed that a majority of Kansans favor developing clean energy sources.

The estimates for building new coal-burning utility plants usually fail to include the environmental costs. For example, with diminishing water resources in the Midwest, do we preserve water to grow food in Kansas, or do we use scarce water resources to produce power for Colorado, who will get most of the electricity produced and whom we have fought for years over water? Air quality may also be affected throughout central and eastern Kansas and beyond. And what effect will particulate matter, mercury, and other noxious elements have on soil and crops throughout the state? Finally, with all that we now know about the threat of greenhouse gases to the planet’s health, does it make sense to pursue this backward-looking course when so many alternatives are available, and when the project is not needed in Kansas?

The public comment period for Sunflower's Holcomb Station coal plant runs from July 1 through August 15.

Public comments can be submitted at the KDHE website at any time during that period.

For the time and location of public hearings, click the following links:
August 2, 2010 in Overland Park, Kansas
August 4, 2010 in Salina, Kansas
August 5, 2010 in Garden City, Kansas

Helpful information on the potential impact of the proposed Sunflower plant can be found at these sites:

Bob Sommer is the Political Chair of the Kansas Sierra Club.

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