This month the Charlotte metro area saw its first Code Red ozone alert of the year. On Code Red days, the simple act of breathing outside puts even healthy adults at risk of damaging their lungs. This red alert presents an opportunity to reflect on how our quality of life depends on decisions made by our state’s government and industries on the way how we generate electricity and build transportation infrastructure.
A little reflection on how we generate electricity is timely. Depending on how state regulators and Duke Energy decide to meet North Carolina’s future electricity demand, these Code Red ozone days may not be going away anytime soon.
In January, Duke submitted a proposal to build two new pulverized-coal generating units at its Cliffside power plant in Rutherford County, directly upwind of Charlotte. This type of plant uses early 20th century technology to inefficiently extract energy from coal, the dirtiest fuel available. Despite plans to install pollution controls, these new units will increase the amount of pollution coming into Charlotte, resulting in greater ozone concentrations in the entire metro area and more Code Red days ahead.
Why would Duke invest in this old, inefficient technology when so many cleaner alternatives are available? Even if they want to use coal, new technologies such as coal gasification and fluidized beds create a lot less pollution per megawatt. The answer, of course, is that the century-old technology is as cheap as it is dirty, and building cheap new generators now, while laws are still lax, will create a cash cow for Duke over the plant’s expected 30-plus year lifespan.
Of course, those profits will come at the expense of the health and even lives of many of Charlotte’s citizens over the coming decades. Forests and streams will also pay the price.
Whether or not that’s an appropriate choice for Duke (or Cincinnati-based Cinergy, Duke’s new partner) executives to make, it’s not the right decision for North Carolina. In 2002, when we passed our landmark Clean Smokestacks Act, North Carolina demonstrated a commitment to lead the nation in protecting the health and quality of life of our citizens by cleaning up dirty old coal-fired power plants. If we want to continue to lead, we should follow three basic rules when considering how to meet our energy demands.
• Maximize energy savings through conservation and efficiency before building new power plants; only cursory consideration has been given to such options.
• Invest in alternative and renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and biomass to meet demand beyond what conservation and efficiency measures can save.
• If energy sources such as coal are still required, make sure new plants use the cleanest, most efficient technologies available.
North Carolina should do more than lead the nation in protecting the health and quality of life of our citizens. We should invest in innovative technologies and a 21st century infrastructure. Whether or not that’s in the short-term interest of Duke’s shareholders, making strategic investments in clean, innovative technologies is in keeping with the best traditions of our great state and the best interests of our citizens.
Harvard Ayers is a board member of Appalachian Voices. This article was originally printed in the Charlotte Observer, July 20, 2006