Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Wendy Williams in support of the coal industry

To the editor, Providence (R.I.) Journal:

Most legislators are oblivious to the world beyond their offices until someone in their own family is affected. That indeed makes for pathetic representation, but if Lamar Alexander and John Warner got interested in the wind energy debate only because their children have property on Nantucket Sound, so be it (Wendy Williams, "TR IV tilts for windmills," May 25).

And yes, Alexander's energy votes are usually determined by the energy lobby. In the case of developing Appalachian ridge lines for wind power, however, the energy lobby is all for it. For example, the firm of Gracewell and Giuliani, which fights emission limits among other burdens to their clients, is working on behalf of a giant wind facility proposed for Highland County, Virginia. There are two obvious reasons: Wind is turning out to be an attractive tax shelter, and while people think that wind turbines are cleaning the air the coal plants can go on polluting as much as ever.

Williams makes much of Knoxville and Memphis being the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America's top two "asthma capitals." Besides looking at the rate and severity of asthma, the ranking also considers pollen levels, public smoking laws, inhaler laws in schools, and the rates of poverty and lack of health insurance. General air quality is but one factor. As the American Lung Association's annual "State of the Air" report shows, Memphis and Knoxville do have pollution problems -- like most big cities -- but they are nowhere near the worst.

Williams also mocks Alexander's proposed funding of "clean coal" as a corporate give-away. She defends the corporate give-aways for wind power as relatively small, ignoring how much the 1.9-cents per kilowatt adds up over the planned 20-year life of a wind turbine as well as other benefits, such as accelerated depreciation and RPS schemes to force the purchase of wind-generated power and create a secondary market in green "credits."

Meanwhile, the main source of our electricity, coal, will continue to burn just as before (and Williams ignores the fact that most of our emissions come from other uses of energy, such as transport). Despite Williams' mockery, cleaning it up can make a real difference.

Scrubbers installed (against the owner's will) at the 1600-MW coal-fired power plant in Mt. Storm, West Virginia, remove the sulfur and nitrogen oxides and most of the mercury from its smokestacks. Once one of the dirtiest plants in the nation, Mt. Storm is now one of the cleanest.

An article in the New York Times business section May 22 described the single integrated coal gasification combined cycle plant in the U.S., owned by Tampa Electric in Florida. In gasifying the coal before burning it, 95% of the sulfur and mercury, and most of the nitrogen, is removed -- at a tenth of the cost of smokestack scrubbing -- and carbon can be captured as well. In addition, the plant generates 15% more energy from the coal and uses 40% less water than traditional plants.

Mining the coal to fire such plants of course remains a serious issue. Unfortunately, building giant wind turbines -- whose output is unpredictably variable -- is not going to reduce, much less end, the use of coal. If Williams is concerned about air quality, if Teddy Roosevelt IV is worried about the arctic ice cap melting, they should put their efforts into cleaning up the energy sources we use now and will be using well into the future.

Resigning oneself to, even to the point of advocating, "feel-good" wind turbines that won't actually change anything -- yet create many problems of their own -- is an environmental cop-out.

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