Edison wants ratepayers to fund study
Southern California Edison wants to study how and where it could build the nation’s first advanced-technology “clean” coal power plant and Thursday asked the California Public Utilities Commission to require the utility’s customers to foot the $52-million bill.
The 600-megawatt power plant, which would serve customers here but could be sited anywhere in the West, would take plentiful but highly polluting coal, separate out and bury greenhouse gases and other toxic contaminants, and produce less-polluting hydrogen electricity.
“We think that the environment is the primary issue of the 21st century ... and a utility has a vital role to move these technologies forward toward realization at a commercial scale to serve the customers and the economy of California in the future,” said Richard Rosenblum, senior vice president of power generation for Rosemead-based Southern California Edison.
Rate increases would probably not be required for the study, and the average cost per customer would be about 45 cents a month for 24 months, Rosenblum said. Such a plant would fit into any future greenhouse gas trading market the state might develop and would comply with all its greenhouse gas regulations, he said. Electric utilities in the European Union earned huge profits off such a market program last year.
Renewable energy and consumer advocates expressed skepticism about the proposal, saying Edison is earning sharply higher profits and could easily afford research without ratepayer subsidies.
“They’re making huge profits from the ratepayers at very, very high rates of return in Southern California, so I think if they really believe in this, shareholder money should be used,” said V. John White, head of an environmental and renewable energy consortium based in Sacramento.
Southern California Edison, which serves an estimated 13 million people, is the largest subsidiary of Edison International, which reported a 30% jump in first-quarter earnings to $333 million thanks to higher wholesale electricity prices and a rate hike imposed on California customers in 2006. Revenue rose to $2.9 billion in the first three months of 2007, up almost 6%.
Critics also questioned the project’s technological viability and said there could be environmental harm from storing pollutants underground. Opponents also disputed the idea that coal should be a big part of the state’s future power supply, saying greenhouse gas laws and policies were intended to do just the opposite.
“Clean coal is just a pipe dream at this point. There’s no existing technology that scrubs all the emissions out,” said Bill Magavern, senior representative for the Sierra Club in California. “California should be getting away from coal and investing in actually clean technologies like solar and wind.”
Jane Williams, executive director of California Communities Against Toxics, said, “We’re moving 50 years back in time. We’re going to inject toxic materials into the ground and perpetuate the fossil fuel industry” if the project goes forward.
Edison is investing heavily in wind and solar power, Rosenblum said, adding that a clean coal plant would provide a reliable baseline power source for when the wind didn’t blow and the sun didn’t shine.
He said the technology had all been tested in pieces, but that the “signature project” would combine them into one full-scale power plant.
Michael Peevey, president of the Public Utilities Commission, said that he had been briefed on the proposal and that it appeared to have merit.
“I don’t want to prejudge the details of all this, but I’m supportive of finding ways to clean up coal,” Peevey said. “We face a huge challenge in this country to try to figure out how we meet the climate change challenges that we have. We can’t do it all with solar, wind and natural gas.”
Others wondered whether the proposal was a bid to find new uses for plants in other states, including the Mohave plant in Nevada, which Edison shuttered at the start of 2006 rather than install expensive air pollution control equipment.
Rosenblum said that although the Mohave plant could be a possible site, that was not the intent of Thursday’s proposal. He said that the project was being designed for California customers and that other subsidiaries or companies would be barred from using it unless the PUC allowed it.