Skip to main content

Gaming the emissions from the Four Corners coal plant

Steven Weissman, associate director, Center for Law, Energy and the Environment | November 17, 2010

The results of the recent elections in California and elsewhere suggest that the Golden State may be  flying solo for many years when it comes to regulating greenhouse gas emissions. While Congress and elected officials in most states have grown even more partisan and climate-theory skeptical, Californians have soundly rejected efforts to cut back on climate regulation. As a result, concerns about “leakage” are likely to grow. Leakage is the term often used to describe an environmental policy in one jurisdiction that just chases pollution to another place, rather than creating a net environmental benefit.

Four Corners Power Plant

Four Corners power plant

The poster child for concerns about leakage is likely to be the Four Corners coal plant in New Mexico (Much of the factual information here comes from a ClimateWire article on November 12, 2010). The Southern California Edison Company owns 48 per cent of the capacity in Units 4 and 5, totaling 738 megawatts of generating capacity. Because of California’s climate laws, Edison feels compelled to cease its capital investment at Four Corners. However, rather than shutting down the capacity it owns, Edison has announced its intention to sell it to the Arizona Public Service Company (APS), which owns and operates Units 1 through 3 (older facilities, capable of generating 560 megawatts). APS says that it will shut down Units 1-3, which otherwise would require about $600 million in environmental improvements.

The complex ownership interests controlling Units 4 and 5 would make it difficult for Edison to just lock the door and throw away the key. However, the sale of Edison’s portion, if approved by regulators, makes it more likely that those units would keep burning coal for the indefinite future. APS would trade 560 megawatts of capacity for 738 megawatts of somewhat cleaner capacity, but it is uncertain that APS would have made the enormous investment needed to keep the older units running, anyway.

The bottom line is that with the proposed sale, the emissions from Units 4 and 5 would become someone else’s trouble, but they would not cease to exist. To the contrary, APS reportedly sees a long term role for Four Corners in “supporting” its effort to comply with Arizona’s standard of 15% renewable power by 2025. That’s right –APS would fill in the gaps from intermittent solar and wind production with coal-fired power. Since coal plants do not quickly make the transition from a cold start to full production, APS likely would keep the boilers stoked around the clock. And what would happen with the excess coal-fired power available when the wind blows and the sun shines? Expect APS to sell it on the spot market to utilities in other leaky states. It is also quite likely that at least some of the power would find its way back to Edison’s territory, or elsewhere in California.

Fear of leakage should not be used to stop California from implementing its climate program, but it should inform the California Public Utilities Commission when it considers whether to approve the sale. It should cause the next governor to redouble efforts to create a comprehensive climate program across the West. ClimateWire points out that Arizona walked away from the current Western Climate Initiative earlier this year. California should use its oversized economic and political clout to help get Arizona back on the team. Which brings up perhaps the most important point – although neighboring states might leak carbon dioxide, it’s California that is the elephant in the garden. California exports much of its pollution to other states, through purchases from facilities like Four Corners, and serves as the economic engine to keep those polluting plants up and running. Stop sending those dollars, and businesses in other states will stop building polluting facilities to serve California. And California – the magnet drawing half of the power consumed in the West, can take the high ground in spreading responsible climate policy across the nation.

Cross-posted from the environmental law and policy blog Legal Planet.

Comments to “Gaming the emissions from the Four Corners coal plant

  1. Berkeley, we have a problem! We don’t seem to have a sense of urgency to make the right things happen before time the next IPCC report is released, in 2013 or 2014.

    Moderator, my skeptical comments below are further supported by a statement in “The final climate frontiers” article in the Dec. 4, 2010 issue of “ScienceNews”:

    “By the time the next IPCC report is released, in 2013 or 2014, scientists should have shortened — or at least sharpened — their list of unknowns. “There’s a whole lot of climate science that needs to be done,” says climate researcher Noah Diffenbaugh of Stanford University. And while the new information might not pacify climate change skeptics, it will clarify key areas of uncertainty in the climate system. It will also help fill in the last details of the geography of climate, giving society a guide for navigating the shoals of future changes.”

    Don’t any of the “hundreds if not thousands of projects involving energy/climate solutions” have any solutions that can actually work today to meet the 350 ppm goal, or are we just going to keep doing projects and updating IPCC reports until we bust?

    Since no one responds to my questions with final solutions that can be implemented today, the human race had better prepare for extinction.

  2. Governor Brown, and the rest of the world must have a permanent large scale power supply solution to eliminate the need for CO2 producing power plants immediately because we are already experiencing unacceptable global warming impacts on humanity and earth’s ecosystems.

    When will we have controlled fusion that UC Prof. Teller promised us half a century ago?

  3. Prof. Weissman, what is UC actually accomplishing that will prevent unacceptable global warming impacts on humanity and earth’s ecosystems?

    The conservative estimate today is that even with dramatic cuts in CO2 emissions we shall still experience at least an additional 2degC temperature rise by the end of this century.

    So what is UC actually doing to implement actions to prevent water, food, health, coastal, weather and ecosystems disasters?

    • A fair question: There are literally hundreds if not thousands of projects involving energy/climate solutions. For those willing to invest the time, check out a sampling of the highlights in this video.

      • Thank you very much Moderator, I’ll check them out because I am always interested in reading about energy/climate solution possibilities.

        But my question still remains:

        “what is UC ACTUALLY ACCOMPLISHING that will prevent unacceptable global warming impacts on humanity and earth’s ecosystems?”

        For instance, UC National Labs have done a great job for over half a century with research, development and production of hydrogen bombs, but why haven’t they spent the same amount of effort implementing controlled fusion at the same time when we need it the most to prevent out of control global warming in this century, especially since UC Prof. Keeling started warning us half a century ago also?

Comments are closed.