Thursday, July 13, 2006 | 7:21 a.m.
A growing Las Vegas Valley needs energy to cool the effects of the sweltering summer sun, and energy providers think they have the solution in new coal plants that would be built hundreds of miles north of here.
Like plans that would tie Las Vegas and its suburbs to White Pine County through ground water wells and pipelines, the plans from two different companies would tie the rural northern county to the city through coal-fired generating plants and 250 miles of power transmission lines. And like the water plans, the utilities' proposals have drawn the attention of environmentalists.
Nevada Power and its parent company, Sierra Pacific Resources, and New Jersey-based LS Power, a national firm, are both proposing independent projects and transmission lines. Each would be built on federal land, and both companies plan to use coal to generate power.
It's the coal that is generating concerns among environmentalists. Coal produces more airborne carbon and other emissions than natural gas-fired electric generating plants.
"We're looking at them hard," says Rose Strickland, a Sierra Club activist in Reno. "There are concerns about the LS plans because of air pollution and especially because of impacts on the Great Basin National Park and on Utah."
In 2004 the Sierra Club submitted a letter to the Bureau of Land Management expressing concern about emission effects from the LS Power plant. The BLM is involved in one layer of approval for both plants, and a federal environmental impact statement is also required for both.
A draft impact statement is expected as soon as next month for the LS Power project. Nevada Power has yet to start the federal approval process.
The projects also have to win approval of Nevada's Public Utilities Commission and from the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection, which regulates air pollution in the state.
Tim Wagner, director of the Smart Energy Campaign for the Utah chapter of the Sierra Club, says his group is likely to comment on the Nevada Power project. He notes that in the late 1960s, Nevada Power was a member of a corporate coalition that built the Mohave Generating Station outside Laughlin. The majority owner was Southern California Edison.
At the time, the companies building the plant promised that it would provide clean, cheap energy. But the plant, which opened in 1971, turned out to be one of the nation's biggest single points of pollution, and was the largest contributor to a miasma of haze in Grand Canyon National Park.
The Mohave plant was supplied with coal from northeast Arizona. A slurry of water and pulverized coal was pumped nearly 300 miles from Arizona's Black Mesa to Laughlin. American Indians from the Black Mesa region said the pumping dried up their aquifer, while they were underpaid for the coal and water delivered to the power plant.
Almost 30 years after the plant started operating, documents revealed that the lawyer representing the Hopi tribe and Navajo Nation in arranging the coal and water deal also represented Peabody Western Coal Co., the company mining and selling the coal. The deal expired this year.
The Mohave plant faced another serious challenge from a coalition of environmental groups, which sued to force the owners to install modern emission-control equipment on the Mohave plant's towering smokestacks. In a settlement with the Sierra Club, the National Parks Conservation Association and Grand Canyon Trust, the plant owners agreed to install modern equipment or shut down the plant.
On Jan. 1, the utility companies shut down the plant. The same month, Nevada Power announced that it was following the lead of LS Power, which had forged the path for a coal-fired plant in White Pine County two years earlier.
"We've got the existing proposed plant in White Pine County already," an exasperated-sounding Wagner said from his offices in Salt Lake City. "And then this one is being proposed So the state of Nevada is going to approve another $3 billion boondoggle and let the Nevada ratepayers subsidize it, while all the pollution blows into Utah. It is not just bad government economic policy, it is also disingenuous governmental and environmental policy.
"As down-winders, we have a lot to say about it, we really do."
Dante Pistone, spokesman for the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection, says the state will protect air quality: "Both companies will have to comply with all state and federal regulations. That will include a demonstration that emissions from the project will not adversely affect air quality."
The state agency has started evaluating the LS Power proposal, while Nevada Power has yet to submit a formal proposal.
"We will be scrutinizing both very carefully," he says.
Both companies insist that with modern pollution-control technologies, emissions will be minimal. Both also plan to bring environmentally friendly wind power through their transmission lines to Las Vegas.
"This is absolute state-of-the-art emissions-control technology," said Mike Liebelson, one of about 100 partners in LS Power.
His company is bullish on coal. Besides the 1,600 megawatts planned for the White Pine County plant, the company has 2,400 megawatts under development across the country.
Roberto Denis, Nevada Power senior vice president, says comparison of his company's project to Mohave is unfair. The Mohave plant was built during the 1960s, and had virtually no emissions-control equipment.
"Today, that's not permissible," he says. "Our plant will be the cleanest coal plant built in the Western United States."
Pollution from the Nevada Power project, designed to produce 1,500 megawatts of electricity, would be about 5 percent of the Mohave plant's, which produced about 1,600 megawatts, Denis said.
Las Vegas and its suburbs on average consume more than 5,400 megawatts at peak use in the summer when air conditioners are cranked up, he says. The demand is satisfied with 3,600 megawatts generated by Nevada Power and 1,800 megawatts purchased with contracts on the open market.
The winter average peak use is just half of the summer use.
LS Power and Nevada Power officials say excess capacity generated by their proposed plants in White Pine County can be sold on the grid. Spokesmen say transmission lines directly connecting the state's north and south energy grids for the first time will be crucial to meeting future Las Vegas demand.
LS Power will reserve 200 megawatts of capacity on its transmission line for wind power generated in White Pine County, while Nevada Power will reserve 300 megawatts of capacity for wind power. Additionally, Denis says, his company's project will enable Southern Nevada to capture power generated through clean, renewable geothermal plants in Northern Nevada.
Wagner, with the Utah Sierra Club, says the industry is painting a rosy picture, but doesn't say there are likely to be real consequences down the road. At least in part, scientists blame global warming on carbon building up in the atmosphere. Carbon is a by-product of burning fossil fuels such as coal.
While the Bush administration has made it easier to build coal plants now, the costs for controlling coal emissions are going to be passed on to ratepayers in the future, Wagner says.
"It's all part of the coal rush that's going on," he says. "There's 120 new coal plants slated to open around the country Many of these plants tend to be built in very remote rural areas and have to have huge transmission lines to bring the power to urban areas."
Ultimately, a "carbon tax" or new carbon-control technologies will have to be installed, and utility customers will have to pay those costs, Wagner says.
That concern is echoed by Eric Witkoski, the Nevada consumer advocate, who has a statutory responsibility to look out for ratepayers:
"There are concerns because they (Nevada Power officials) are proposing a $3 billion plant. The proposal is similar to what LS Power has on the drawing board at this point. I don't know if there's room for two power plants."
Pollution issues may have to be considered when looking at the financial picture, he says.
"Are we going to be looking at a carbon tax or something?" Witkoski asks. "That's where you do get to the heart of the analysis."
He adds that the construction of the transmission plants does have the potential to spur sales of renewable "green" energy from wind or geothermal sources to Las Vegas.
Wagner, however, is skeptical about the energy companies' commitment to such sources.
"For every coal-fired power plant you see approved, that just throws a big wet rag on the market for renewable energy," he says. "The market will be saturated with fossil fuel-based electricity."
Those concerns, however, are a world away from John Chachas, a White Pine County commissioner. The cash-strapped county, with a population of fewer than 10,000, is hungry for investment. Two power-plant projects make Chachas twice as happy.
"There's water. There's air quality. There's wide-open spaces," he says. "If they both want to come here, the doors are open."