Coal Burning Man?
Proposal irks burners and raises questions about California's commitment to combating climate change

By Cameron Scott

As thousands of Bay Area residents head out to Nevada's Black Rock Desert this week for the Burning Man festival, an energy company has other intentions for the land around this ancient lake bed: construction of a massive, coal-fueled power plant.

"It's such an incredible place," says Justin Miller, a Burning Man participant and a former Nevadan now living in San Francisco. "It's literally like being on another planet."

The proposal doesn't just affect West Coast residents who see this as a special place. Given that much of the power will be sent into California, the project is prompting questions about the state's commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, particularly in light of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's high-profile pledge to do so at the World Environment Day conference in June. Coal produces far more greenhouse gases and mercury than natural gas, California's biggest single source of electricity.

Just 10 miles away from the festival site, in an area that boasts what the Environmental Protection Agency ranks as some of the cleanest air in the country, San Diego-based Sempra Energy has proposed to build Granite Fox, which, in 2010, would begin to feed 1,450 megawatts of energy into the nearby Los Angeles transmission line, which conveys power to southern California.

California already uses some coal power that is generated out of state, but Sempra's proposal illustrates the tough choices the state will have to make about where to get the additional power it needs. Granite Fox would block the development of renewable energy in northwest Nevada by monopolizing the transmission line's remaining capacity, forcing a choice between renewable energy and coal power just as California officials are implementing a range of regulations that could decide the future of coal power in the state.

David Rumsey, a Nevada rancher and activist with Nevada Clean Energy Coalition, a group opposing the plant, told the Bay Guardian, "It's most important to stop this plant. It's the biggest, it's the best funded, and it knocks out renewables."

There has been a spate of recent coal-plant proposals across the West due to the rising cost of natural gas and increasing demand for energy – especially in California. According to the Edison Electric Institute, there are currently up to 26 coal plants under consideration in the West. None are proposed in California, because coal is expensive to import and the state's environmental regulations are strict. But, as Energy Ventures Analysis consultant Mike Schaal explains, "Just about any power plant in the West can and does at some point send power to California."

Rumsey claims that "companies like Sempra are trying to get around the problem by going out of state." Sempra defends the plant; its spokesperson told us it will emit 75 percent less mercury and be 10 percent more efficient than old-style coal plants.

But Jon Wellinghoff, a lawyer with the Nevada Clean Energy Coalition, cautions that it will not use the cleanest available coal technology, called IGCC, and that doing so would make Granite Fox's power cost more than power from renewable sources.

The California Energy Commission (CEC) estimates that there are several thousand megawatts of energy from renewable sources that could be developed in northwest Nevada. A small company called Nevada Energy Park currently produces 4 megawatts of geothermal power and proposes to transmit at least 200 megawatts of wind power beginning in 2007 – if Granite Fox hasn't already claimed the line's capacity, principal Don Gieseke told us.

Because permission to use the line is granted automatically for all viable generators, the choice between coal and renewable projects like Nevada Energy Park's will be made by the Nevada permitting process and California's energy policy. The best opportunity to stop Granite Fox will be when Sempra seeks approval for its water-use and building permits before the Washoe County Board of Commissioners. That decision is also likely to be appealed in the courts.

California regulations on coal power are subject to interpretation because they are now structured only as vague goals. The CEC has set a target for all nonmunicipal utilities to use 20 percent renewable energy by 2010 – the same year the Granite Fox plant would go online.

In order to reach the 20 percent goal – up from 11 percent now – the CEC has established a "loading order" in which investments in conventional power take a backseat to efficiency and renewables. In December the California Public Utilities Commission began requiring a "carbon risk adder," which forces utilities to include the costs of complying with future regulations in all long-term energy contracts.

"Although I know that California will need more power to serve our growing needs, I do not believe this power should come from coal," CPUC president Michael Peevey said in April during a speech to the annual conference of the California Climate Action Registry, in Berkeley.

But officials have not ruled out coal altogether, as even Peevey acknowledged during his speech when he said, "There are new developments in coal technology that could potentially make coal attractive if we can use IGCC." And a CEC spokesperson told us Schwarzenegger is also interested in so-called clean-coal technology.

In June Schwarzenegger issued an executive order setting voluntary targets for greenhouse gas reduction. He has established a Climate Action Team to translate the order into policy, but it is just beginning its work.

If the order is interpreted as applying to out-of-state pollution, it could make it impossible for California to accept the power offered by Sempra and other proponents of coal-fired plants, leaving the Burning Man alone among things Californians burn in the Black Rock Desert.

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