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Friday, February 18, 2011

5 Quick Questions with LA Beyond Coal's Chrissy Scarborough

In Los Angeles, 44% of our energy comes from burning coal. Chrissy Scarborough with support from LA Beyond Coal team member Evan Gillespie offers up some answers to the problem.
Bill Haller: What is the most reasonable plan or timeline to get Los Angeles off coal?
Chrissy Scarborough: The most reasonable timeline for our city to responsibly transition off coal entirely is a plan to do so by 2020. Even on this schedule, LA will be far from the first city to get rid of coal. Oregon just announced it would be coal free by no later than 2020, while Denver just announced it was closing more than 1,000MW of coal-fired power by the end of 2017. Climate science is pretty clear that the country needs to stop burning coal entirely by 2030 to stave off the worst impacts of climate change, which means cities and states that can do it before then have to lead the way.
BH: DWP bills scare people. Many folks feel their bills are a crapshoot every two months with ratepayers rolling snake eyes. Are there any real life facts laying around that can indicate what the real cost of renewable energy will be in the near future? Obviously, it's going to cost more, but will I have to cut out a weekly trip to Starbucks or cut off an arm and a leg?
CS: Well, don’t forget that the cost of inaction is pretty steep. [link provided by Ed.] Energy prices are going up all over the country due in large part to rising and highly volatile fossil fuel prices. So, in order to compare apples to apples here, we need to compare the cost of investments in clean energy with remaining tied to a dirty and increasingly expensive fuel source. According to a City Council commissioned report from last year, 58% of the rate increases we saw in 2009 were due to the rising costs of fossil fuels like coal and natural gas. The mere cost of trucking in coal to one of our coal plants has risen 170 million a year. Still, we can take action to keep our bills down. In order to protect our pocketbooks in the long run, we need to invest now in energy efficiency programs that can cut our energy use (and bills) while supporting the long term phase out of increasingly expensive and volatile fossil fuels like coal for clean energy.
BH: Other than the fact that Santa leaves it in my stocking every year, what's so bad about coal? It's cheap and plentiful. Pennsylvanians love it.
CS: Pretty much everything about coal is bad (beyond occasionally serving as the traditional eyes for snowmen). For starters, coal is a public health nightmare, contributing to four of the five leading causes of death in the country: cancer, stroke, heart disease, and respiratory disease. All told, American Lung estimates coal causes 12,000 hospitalizations, 38,000 heart attacks and 24,000 deaths each year. It's also a leading contributor to climate change. Coal creates about a third of all the carbon pollution in the country. The two power plants LA draws electricity from emit as much climate pollution as about 6 million cars.
BH: Don't we have clean coal? How clean is clean coal?? I'd like clean coal. It sounds fun.
CS: Much like “jumbo shrimp” or “gourmet pizza,” “Clean coal” is an oxymoron. The coal industry keeps promising “clean coal,” but they aren't anywhere close to delivering on their promise. "Clean coal" refers to technology which could theoretically catch all the global warming pollution before it leaves the smokestack and store it in the ground or elsewhere. The problem is no one's been able to do this yet, despite billions of our tax dollars wasted in government subsidies. In Illinois, where there's a pilot project being debated, the cost of the plant is expected to fall between $3.5 and $4 billion. So even if the technology works, it is far from clear that the technology could even come close to being financially competitive with clean energy. What's worse, the proposed technology does nothing to capture other pollutants like mercury or smog and does not stop coal companies from blowing the tops off mountains or carving up our irreplaceable wild places. It's a sneaky term, but there's no way to get around the fact that coal is dirty and dangerous.
BH: Does someone actually oppose Los Angeles getting off coal?
CS: There has been a growing movement of people in Los Angeles demanding a coal-free future from their Department. Neighborhood, faith and political organizations representing areas across Los Angeles have joined the call for clean energy. The growing coalition of Angelenos in favor of a timely transition away from the use of coal-fired power includes, Councilman Koretz, 11 neighborhood councils, a growing number of home owner associations, religious leaders, and small businesses. More than anyone though, Mayor Villaraigosa has been a leader in this effort. The Mayor is one of few politicians anywhere in the world who's moved beyond rhetoric and is actually tackling climate change by going after the dirtiest fossil fuel.
The business community, an untraditional ally for the Sierra Club, has also been very helpful in our work to rid LA of its dirty coal habit. Organizations such as the Los Angeles Business Council are serving their member businesses well by realizing that there is a tremendous opportunity for economic development in Los Angeles in our necessary transition away from coal.
This is not to say there are not speed bumps on the road to a coal-free future. The opposition in LA is born largely out of misconception- there is a false impression that we must choose between the environment and our pocketbooks, which simply isn't the case. Prop 23 was defeated in large part because businesses saw the opportunity in the green economy – including the 500,000 jobs in the CA green economy and the $9+ billion in green venture capital coming into the state. If we're going to drive those opportunities to LA, we have to establish smart energy policy. That starts with getting out of coal.
This is where your readers come in… the most important person to contact is your Council Member. The City Council need to hear from constituents like your readers that Angelenos want to see LADWP out of coal by 2020 and to invest in our future through energy efficiency and clean energy. If rates are inevitably going up, we need clear assurances from Council and LADWP that those investments are spurring clean energy innovation, not propping up old and dirty coal plants. In addition, you, your company, your church, your PTA can all join the coalition of supporters by signing here