State set to limit coal-fired electricity

Times Staff Writer

California utility regulators are poised to take a major step toward curbing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.

On Thursday, the California Public Utilities Commission is expected to approve rules that would require all investor-owned utilities to make sure that the power they generate or purchase is at least as clean as that produced by the latest generation of natural-gas-fired turbines.

The rules, if adopted by the four-member commission, would effectively ban Southern California Edison Co. and other non-municipal utilities in California from signing long-term contracts to import electricity from existing plants that burn coal in the intermountain West.

Such coal-fired electricity accounts for about 20% of electricity consumed in California.

“This will limit new coal development aimed at California,” commission President Michael R. Peevey said Tuesday in a conference call with reporters.


Peevey predicted that the imported coal power would be replaced by electricity from new plants fueled with natural gas plants and by the increased commercial development of alternative energy, such as solar, wind and geothermal power.

Edison said in a statement that “we generally agree with the commission’s objective.”

State law requires that Edison, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and San Diego Gas & Electric Co. satisfy one-fifth of their customers’ needs with nonpolluting alternative power by 2010. Recent reports from the PUC and the California Energy Commission indicate that the utilities are moving toward the goal but are likely to miss the 2010 target.

The PUC’s impending ban on importing electricity produced by coal plants, which emit carbon dioxide, is based on a new law sponsored by state Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland). The law is an important tool in a pioneering effort by the state Legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by one-quarter by 2020.

Environmental groups said they were pleased with the PUC’s expected action.

Jim Metropulos of the Sierra Club predicted that the ban on conventional coal power would stabilize greenhouse gas emission levels from electric power plants despite population growth that would spur demand for electricity.

“What we need to do is transition to an energy market that produces less greenhouse gas emissions from [electric] power,” he said.

PUC President Peevey predicted that the ban on importing electricity from burning pulverized coal would spur the development of new technology. Coal mining companies and the federal government are experimenting with cleaner-burning power plants that turn coal into a gas. Carbon dioxide produced by the process would be kept out of the atmosphere by pumping it into underground depositories.