Coal's Latest Black Eye: A Huge Loss in Nevada

Another week, another nail in the coffin of dirty coal. A big, big nail.

NV Energy (the company formerly known as Sierra Pacific Resources) has shelved plans to build a 1,500 megawatt coal-fired power plant -- the controversial Ely Energy Center.  

No coal-fired power plant in America has been more closely watched or harder fought than this one, thanks to Senator Harry Reid's early opposition to the project and the millions spent by the coal industry pushing dirty coal in Nevada. Nearly two years ago, Reid said he would do "everything I can" to stop construction of three major coal-fired power plants in his home state of Nevada, and push for more alternative energy development.

That prompted coal industry execs to vow to "Daschlize" Reid, meaning they would spend as much as needed to get him out of the Senate. Stakes were also high in Nevada because the Ad/Lobbying shop hired to run the industry's fraudulent $40 million national "clean coal" campaign, R&R Partners, is based in Las Vegas. Nevada was also a hotly-contested Presidential election state, and the combined size of the three plants -- 4,000 megawatts -- was unmatched by proposals in any other state.

But like other developers who have canceled or delayed projects in recent months, NV Energy has realized that global warming pollution will soon be federally regulated, and new, dirty coal plants are a bad deal for the bottom line, not to mention utility bills or public health.

NV Energy CEO Michael Yackira acknowledged as much after making the announcement.

"It's about the economic realities of building a coal plant. ... We looked at it and said, 'Now is not the time to take an economic risk for either our rate payers or our shareholders.'"

Of course these risks were obvious to anyone you looked at the proposal. Back in early April 2008, in a report commissioned by NRDC, the Wall Street firm Innovest calculated that "the first phase of Sierra Pacific's planned $5 billion coal-fired Ely facility will increase Sierra's coal capacity by 180 percent and its annual C02 emissions by an estimated 93 percent compared to 2004 emissions levels."  

The Wall Street research firm went on to note:

"'In light of impending carbon regulation, Sierra Pacific's continuing focus on new coal capacity is in direct contrast to leading U.S. utilities that are reducing their carbon risk exposure and capitalizing on the opportunities associated with renewable energy and energy efficiency... The proposed facility presents significant environmental and financial risks that will likely translate into negative financial implications for both shareholders and ratepayers.' 

Industry experts support Innovest's findings. Former Nevada Public Utility Commission (PUC) Commissioner and Nevada State Consumer Advocate Tim Hay said: 'It is no coincidence that electrical rates in Nevada have gone from among the lowest in the nation to some of the very highest today.   Time and time again, Sierra Pacific has relied on shifting risk onto the backs of investors and ratepayers rather than putting in place a sound business strategy.'" 

The demise of the Nevada coal-fired power plant is not exactly being mourned.  In an insightful editorial titled "Good Riddance to Coal," The Las Vegas Sun editorial board writes:

"NV Energy's announcement Monday that it was postponing for at least 10 years its plans to build a coal-fired power plant near Ely was as welcome as it was inevitable. We have opposed the plant, known as the Ely Energy Center, since plans for it were announced in 2006. Nevada should be moving forward with renewable energy, not moving backward with coal, whose ceaseless, voluminous emissions are unhealthy to all forms of life.

'The company will not move forward with construction of the coal plant until the technologies that will capture and store greenhouse gasses are commercially feasible,' a statement on NV Energy's Web site said.

That statement confirms that so-called 'clean coal' does not exist, despite promotions of the concept in national advertising. Although new coal plants emit fewer pollutants than ones built two or three decades ago, they are still dirty. Proof of that is contained in the Ely Energy Center's draft environmental impact statement, which says emissions of greenhouse gases and various unhealthy chemicals and particulates would amount to millions of tons per year."

The Reno Gazette-Journal editorial writers took a somewhat more charitable route to reach the same conclusion:

"Utility executives deserve credit for understanding that their industry is changing and that building a conventional power plant far from the state's urban areas doesn't make good sense for its investors or its customers. 

But opponents of the coal-fired plant, who put a different kind of pressure on the utility, deserve a lot of credit for the decision, too.  When U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., announced his opposition to any new coal-fired power plants in mid-2007, it became politically difficult for the utility to move ahead with its plans. (Two other coal-fired plants have been proposed for rural Nevada by other, non-Nevada companies.) Reid warned that he would do 'everything I can' to prevent the plants from being constructed. 

The fight against the plant continued last week at a hearing in Reno hosted by the Bureau of Land Management, which would have to approve the project. The opponents rightly welcomed NV Energy's announcement of the cancellation on Monday."

The bottom line is this:  One of the biggest coal-fired power plants proposed for the United States is now dead -- at least for the foreseeable future.  It's one of the biggest signs yet that the future of dirty coal and the future of the United States are now on two increasingly diverging paths.