PUBLISHER’S NOTE: Is John Wilder Nuts?

The TXU chairman wants to build 11 coal-powered plants for an already-polluted North Texas. But his critics need a lesson in geology.

Laura Miller launched a petition drive against it. Carole Strayhorn denounced Gov. Rick Perry for fast-tracking it. John Wilder’s plan to use coal in 11 more TXU-owned plants has garnered plenty of unwelcome publicity. But amid all the clamor, I haven’t seen much to explain why a responsible executive would propose fouling even more of our already-polluted air. 

North Texas is polluted, dangerously so. (How bad is our air? See this month’s Pulse.) According to the Energy Information Administration, the electric industry in Texas ranked highest in carbon dioxide emissions in 2004 out of all 50 states, fifth-highest in sulfur dioxide emissions, and third-highest in nitrous oxide emissions.

So why, for God’s sake, does John Wilder want to build 11 more coal-powered plants?

Dallas-Fort Worth grows at a rate of 410 newcomers a day (based on population projections through 2010). Our growth is outstripping our energy production. To avoid the kind of power shortages that this summer blacked out parts of New York City and California, we need more plants.

But do we need more dirty old coal plants? Why not the new, emission-reducing gasification plants like the two that are being tried in Tampa, Florida, and Terre Haute, Indiana?

The key to the matter—and this is so simple even a politician ought to be able to understand it—lies in the differences in coal. The gasification plants use Eastern coal. Texas relies on Western coal and lignite. Western coal is 100 million years or so younger than Eastern coal, and lignite is so young it hasn’t even become coal yet. Both are softer, and their molecular structure makes them more difficult to manage. Eastern coal, mostly from the Appalachians, is mining out. In not too many years, East Coast utilities will also be using Western coal.

Nobody has yet found a way to use gasification on Western coal. Maybe someday somebody will. Or maybe FutureGen, a project of the Department of Energy that will attempt a process that’s even better than gasification, will work. (The federal government doesn’t have a stellar record, but we can always hope.)

Meanwhile, engineers in the energy business haven’t been sitting on their thumbs waiting for a miracle cure. TXU alone has pledged $2 billion in new technology for coal use—twice as much as the government plans to invest in FutureGen. The new technology is so much better that TXU says it can double its electric generation and, at the same time, reduce emissions 20 percent system-wide. In fact, the company claims that the new coal plants will even outperform gasification plants. To quell the critics (and to forestall competitors), TXU last month asked state regulators to codify a cap on emissions at the level it says it can achieve.

Independent analysts confirm TXU’s position. The Houston Advanced Research Council, for one, says that closing older TXU plants and opening the new ones will reduce ozone.

Our mayor famously likes to shoot first and ask questions later. Carole Strayhorn is madly scrambling for an issue—any issue—that will embarrass Rick Perry. Regardless, I’m glad they made a big fuss, even if they didn’t know what they were talking about. The poor quality of our air should cause a giant debate. I’d love to see political leaders tackle the root causes. Next time, I just hope they get their facts straight.

This time, maybe one or both will offer John Wilder and TXU an apology. The man seems a lot saner—and foresighted—than his erstwhile critics.


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