War of the Energy Worlds

Coal vs. renewables. Equally profitable. Not equally destructive.

Photo Illustration by David Jayne and David Robert

For now, the only outward sign of the invaders is the tower jutting into the sky over the Smoke Creek Desert, humming incessantly like an insect. Sempra Energy’s air quality monitoring tower is surrounded, at its base, by a tall, tan fence. Taut barbed wire runs along the highway. Dragonflies hover over the sagebrush.

I step over an empty Bud Lite bottle and stop to listen. The tower emits a mechanical reveille, “doo-doo-deee,” here at the site of a proposed 1,450-megawatt coal power generation plant.

Sempra Energy, a San Diego-based merchant power company, wants to have its Granite Fox Power Project in operation by 2010. The plant would be a two-stack, compressed-coal-burning facility sandwiched between homes, ranches and wilderness here, a few miles from the Black Rock Desert–High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area, about 10 miles northwest of Gerlach and a two-hour drive from Reno. For the several decades the plant is in operation, its power would be exported to southern California.

The plant’s construction would create thousands of jobs in Washoe County. An economic-impact study released last week showed that the project would infuse hundreds of millions of dollars into the northern Nevada economy.

A coalition of Nevadans worried over the impact of coal also released a study last week. It showed that developing renewable power resources—specifically 1,000 megawatts of wind and 800-plus megawatts of geothermal—would, hypothetically, also create thousands of jobs and infuse hundreds of millions into the economy.

It would do so without creating the kind of environmental devastation attributed, around the world, to coal-burning power plants.

Planet X protest
John and Rachel Bogard, owners of Planet X Pottery, live and work three miles from the Sempra site. I visited them in 2004, just after the building permit for the air quality monitoring tower had been approved. Little was known about Sempra’s plans then. ("Power play,” April 15, 2004)

Now everyone knows a little too much. The Bogards seem quiet, tired of telling their story to TV stations and The New York Times.

“We’re just two little people working as hard as we can to stay alive,” Rachel says. “And we’re fighting a Fortune 500 company.”

We sit in the shade not far from Rachel’s lush garden and the solar panels that power their spread. John and Rachel, who’ve lived out here for 30 years, are both lean Nevadans with even desert tans. Rachel, long hair pulled back from her face, carries notes and a printout of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s “Crimes Against Nature,” from the Common Dreams Web site.

The Bogards aren’t merely opposed to the plant because it would go in their backyard. The Bogards believe that coal plants aren’t beneficial—not in Nevada, not anywhere.

Concern about greenhouse gases tops Rachel’s list. Coal plants are a prime culprit—contributing more CO2 per unit of energy produced than any other fossil-fuel-burning device.

“Global warming is just a slow-motion suicide bomb,” she says.

Then there’s mercury. Because mercury doesn’t dissipate over time, Nevada’s lakes and streams are polluted with toxic mercury from 19th-century mining operations. Coal-fired power plants across the nation, though, are responsible for lion’s share of mercury emissions.

What we know about mercury: Even microscopic amounts can impair learning ability, language and motor skills of a developing unborn child, infant or preschooler. At elevated levels, mercury can cause permanent brain damage. It can damage the nervous, cardiovascular, immune and reproductive systems.

It can make you crazy.

Maybe that’s the problem with Americans, Rachel jokes.

Officials from Sempra have visited the Bogards’ ranch. One offered, John says, to give the couple a piece of land somewhere else.

“They want us to move,” he says. “They said, ‘Tell us what you need.'”

What Rachel and John need is a couple hundred acres off the beaten path, quiet, where they can run their pottery business and attract enough business to keep afloat.

Where do you find a place like that?

John Bogard, lives on a solar-powered spread, just three miles from Sempra’s proposed coal burning plant. Coal isn’t the only power option, he tells visitors.

Photo By David Robert

“Exactly,” John says.

So they fight the good fight.

For now, that includes attending meetings, working to promote energy alternatives and filing protests to Sempra’s applications to change 25,000 acre-feet of water rights to industrial use.

The Bogards think the amount of water rights Sempra’s claiming is highly inflated. A coal plant would require far more water than could be recharged annually. John calculates, based on the numbers Sempra claiming, that the plant would be using 15,000 gallons per minute.

In the worst case, the company would mine the aquifer for water. The Bogards fear disastrous consequences.

“They’ll mine it till [the land] sinks and then say, ‘Whoops,'” John says.

When visitors stop by Planet X Pottery to shop for artful ceramics, Rachel and John talk about Sempra’s plans, the downsides of coal—and the upsides of green alternatives like wind, solar and geothermal.

For $2, visitors can buy bumper stickers that the Bogards had printed: “Got Mercury?” and “Clean Coal?” The Bogards hand out pamphlets from the Nevada Clean Energy Coalition that direct visitors to www.nevadacleanenergy.org.

“Of the thousands of people we see here, none of them support the project,” Rachel says.

“Most of them are horrified,” says John. “One guy came through to get a box of brochures to hand out.”

If popular support counted or if we lived in enlightened times, the Bogards might be optimistic.

“But we don’t live in an era of common sense,” Rachel says. “Money talks, and we don’t have it.”

Number numbing
Two reports released last week, one from the Nevada Clean Energy Coalition and another commissioned by Sempra, show how much money power plants might net for northern Nevada.

On Tuesday, July 12, Western Resource Advocates released its study, prepared for the Nevada Clean Energy Coalition, on the benefits of renewable development. WRA predicts that developing 1,000 megawatts of wind and 800-plus megawatts of geothermal energy in northern Nevada would mean:

3,354 construction-phase jobs

$319 million in taxes and wages during construction

580 operating jobs

$33.3 million annually in property taxes and royalty payments

On Wednesday, July 13, Sempra execs were in town to talk about their economic study on Granite Fox. Sempra’s study, performed by University of Nevada, Reno economist and consultant Gilbert Coleman, outlines the following benefits:

3,700 construction-phase jobs

$458 million economic impact during construction

304 operating jobs

$29 million annually in property and sales taxes

Rachel and John Bogard, owners of Planet X Pottery, are members of the Nevada Clean Energy Coalition, which is fighting Sempra’s plans to build a coal plant near Gerlach. For info, www.nevadacleanenergy.org.

Photo By David Robert

In terms of economic impact, the energy plans both seem beneficial. But the WRA report includes another factor—water. Should the state water commissioner approve Sempra’s request to convert 25,000 acre-feet of water to industrial use, that water would be lost to residential, commercial or recreational use. Water rights in Nevada can sell for $15,000 to $20,000 per acre-foot.

“Thus, the water rights sought for the proposed Sempra coal plant have a value on the order of $375 million to $500 million in alternative development uses,” the report concludes. “Renewable energy, which has significantly smaller water needs, could … leave significant water resources intact for other development.”

Sempra filed dozens of applications for water-use changes with the Nevada Division of Water Resources. The office has also received dozens of protests from such entities as Washoe County, Public Resource Associates, Sierra Club, Western Resource Advocates, Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, Friends of Nevada Wilderness, the Gerlach General Improvement District and the Pyramid Lake Tribe, whose reservation extends well into the Smoke Creek Desert.

David Rumsey, owner of the nearby 1,400-acre Parker Ranch and wildlife refuge, filed protests, as well. He says these water decisions affect everyone in northern Nevada.

If water supplies in Reno should diminish, the county might need water from the Northwest.

“Washoe County has a long-term plan that they may need some of the water for Reno, for the citizens there,” Rumsey says. “[Sempra is] doing what we consider to be an illegal water grab.

"[Sempra is] the poster child for short-term thinking. It’s so arrogant. They’re saying, ‘Renewable energy can’t get its act together for another few years.’ So they’re going to build something that’s going to be there for 50 years. Do you realize how antiquated coal is going to be in 50 years?”

Energy choice
The desert northwest of Gerlach is a logical place to make power. Sempra’s land is near a 3,100-megawatt transmission line, the Pacific Direct Current Intertie, which runs from northwest Oregon to southern California. Depending on the season, the line often uses only about half its capacity. After investing $150 million to tap into the PDCI, a merchant power company like Sempra can start dealing its powerful drug.

People need to know is that coal isn’t the only option, says John Bogard.

“If they’re looking for electricity, there are other ways to get at it,” he says. “The tax revenue base, jobs created are all the same with green power. Granted, it hasn’t been developed yet. But unless you get started now, you never will.”

Clean Energy Coalition members show that a renewable energy project would bring economic gain with much less environmental devastation. This begs the question: Is there interest in developing renewable power in Nevada?

By the end of 2006, four new geothermal plants and one solar generation plant in Nevada should be under operation, according to Nevada Public Utilities Commission records. In mid-2007, a 50-megawatt wind farm could be up and running near Ely.

The northwest corner of Nevada is home to some of the best potential geothermal sites in the Western United States.

Two disparate power projects, coal and renewables, couldn’t peacefully co-exist, argues the WRA report. Sempra’s coal project would use up the available 1,000 to 2,000 megawatts of free space on the PDCI line, shutting out competition from renewables.

If Sempra execs considered the project an easy sell to Nevadans, they were wrong, says Rumsey.

“A lot of Nevadans care,” Rumsey says. “A lot of people care.”

Most Gerlach residents oppose the project. Many showed up at Sempra’s last town hall meeting with hard questions for Sempra.

“No matter how good their PR is, their message is bad,” Rumsey says. “How do you make mercury look good, pollution look good? Sempra can only for so long pull the wool over people’s eyes.”

Corporate mined
How can Sempra make pollution and hogging water resources look good?

For a Fortune 500 firm, it’s simple. Wave money at people.

Sempra’s spokesman, Art Larson, and the Granite Fox project manager, Marty Swartz, were in Reno last week, making the rounds of TV stations and newspapers. They appeared on Sam Shad’s talk show, Nevada Newsmakers, with UNR economist Coleman, hired by Sempra to look at the project’s economic impact, in tow.

The execs meet with me in the conference room of PR Concepts in the Vine Street Creative Building in Reno. The walls are lined with awards for work the agency has done for the Lear Theater and Centex Homes.

Sempra’s talking points?

Bill Stockwell, atmospheric research professor at the Desert Research Institute, says that he’s most concerned about the effects of mercury from coal-burning plants.

Photo By David Robert

There’s the usual stuff about balanced energy portfolios and decreased dependence on volatile fuel markets. Swartz equates coal power to national security.

Much of the conversation revolves around money.

“The [Granite Fox Power] project would be the largest industrial project in Washoe County,” Coleman says. “The project would be the largest taxpayer in Washoe County. In economic terms, the government turns a real profit on this.”

Is that surprising?

Coleman says that he expected positive economic benefits, yet his approach to the project was completely scientific and unbiased. Using the data provided to him by Sempra, he and other UNR statisticians made their calculations from scratch.

Though Sempra doesn’t yet have any contracts for its power, Swartz says it’s still early in the process. And news from California about Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recent resolution to reduce greenhouse gases doesn’t bother the Sempra team, either. In fact, Larson notes, news stories that specifically mentioned how the resolution might impact out-of-state coal plants were “erroneous.”

It’s not fair, Larson says, to single out coal when so many forms of pollution factor into global warming.

(The Department of Energy has noted that coal plants are responsible for at least a third of the nation’s CO2 problem.)

Also, Sempra’s coal plants will be much cleaner than old polluting plants, Larson contends. In fact, Swartz adds, they’ll be 10 percent more efficient at containing toxic emissions. Clean-coal advancements, including new “super-critical” technology, would contain more of the acid-rain-causing nitrogen oxide (NOx) and sulfur dioxide (SOx), he says.

One argument for the project has been that allowing a profitable coal plant in northern Nevada would encourage or even help fund the development of renewables.

But Larson and Swartz say the company doesn’t have any plans to develop geothermal, wind or solar resources. They’ve heard another company is considering wind turbines on the nearby Granite Range.

“I’d like to think that we had something to do with that, by making a way to get that power to market,” Swartz says.

The Sempra folks want to leave northern Nevadans with the feeling that the company cares what locals want.

“Participate in the process, go to meetings, go to our website,” Swartz says. “Then base your decision on the facts in front of you, not on hearsay or what people are saying.”

Coal science
Speaking of facts—here are a few on the health risks of coal.

In the United States, fine-particle pollution from coal plants is now known to be responsible for hundreds of thousands of asthma attacks every year and tens of thousands of deaths from cardiac disease and lung cancer.

A study commissioned by the Clean Energy Task Force, a Boston-based nonprofit formed by 20 senior scientists, lawyers, MBAs and economists, attributes 24,000 deaths and 38,200 non-fatal heart attacks annually to fine-particle pollution.

Even if Granite Fox employs the cleanest of coal burning technologies, a plant that size would produce more than 6,000 tons of NOx and 4,400 tons of SOx annually, according to former state consumer advocate Tim Hay.

It’s true that NOx and SOx dissipate in the atmosphere in a matter of days, says Bill Stockwell, atmospheric research professor at the Desert Research Institute. Unfortunately, the compounds would easily remain active long enough to drift over Reno and Lake Tahoe, when the wind’s blowing that way. Pyramid Lake’s even closer.

In some cases, these can act as fertilizer, Stockwell says, that in low doses would change plant populations, rodent populations and other environmental factors “for good or ill, but not particularly for good.”

The understated scientist says: “That’s been raised as a concern.”

NOx and SOx are ingredients in acid rain. Acid rain degrades lakes and streams, damages trees and soil. It decays home exteriors and also threatens “irreplaceable buildings, statues and sculptures,” according to the EPA’s publication “Acid Rain: An Overview.”

It makes people sick, too.

Bruno Selmi, owner of Bruno’s Country Club in Gerlach, might be the last man in Gerlach who favors building a coal-burning power plant near the area. He’d welcome a growth spurt for the town.

Photo By David Robert

Stockwell, who worked from 2002-2003 on the feds’ energy legislation, says he’s OK, for the most part, with coal-burning plants that use the most up-to-date technology. But he thinks much stricter controls need to be issued regarding mercury.

“It’s a neurotoxin,” Stockwell says. “Some things are too dangerous, and controls ought to be implemented.”

In Gerlach
Bruno’s Country Club, on a late Sunday afternoon, is hopping with Gerlach regulars and a diverse group of outsiders. A Seattle woman in town to map archeological sites drinks a Sierra Nevada pale ale. A handful of Reno musicians kill time before heading to take sunset-on-the-playa photographs.

In the attached dining room, several families dine alongside two tables of playa-dusted Burning Man staffers, who’re prepping for this year’s influx of campers to Black Rock City on Labor Day weekend.

“Power plants?” exclaims one Burner, who grins and claims he’s from Texas. “I say more power! Bring it on.”

“We’re a pretty homogenous group,” says Jinx, who takes a business card but offers no other comments.

In June, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to oppose the coal-power plant in northern Nevada. Board members asked the Los Angeles City Council to deny access to the PDCI, the power line near the site.

Many residents of the Bay Area love this part of Nevada.

“San Francisco every year, half this town empties out for Burning Man,” Board President Aaron Peskin told a Reno Gazette-Journal reporter.

Octogenarian bartender and businessman Bruno Selmi takes over the bar at around 6 p.m. I ask him how he’s feeling about the power plant these days. A look of irritation crosses his face.

“What do San Francisco have to say about Gerlach?” he says. “It’s bullshit. I live here. What do they have to say about where I live?”

A year ago, Selmi told me he felt the power plant would be the beginning of a growth spurt in Gerlach.

Sempra’s economic-impact report, however, predicts that workers wouldn’t live in Gerlach. They’d end up in the closest city to the power plant—Fernley, 85 miles away. That’s a safer distance for a kid prone to asthma. Gerlach would get the full impact of Sempra’s pollution. I mention this to Selmi.

“Pollution?” he says. “What about the cars and trucks in Reno?”

Home on the range
David Rumsey, cartographer and desert-lover, began camping in the Smoke Creek Desert in the 1970s, when he was a real estate developer in the Bay Area.

“I came to know the place, and that’s what brought me out here,” he says. “The love of the desert, the environment, the people out here and their way of life.”

Ten years ago, Rumsey purchased the Parker Ranch, 1,400 acres. His goal was to turn the “old, beaten-down” cattle ranch into thriving wilderness.

On the lower 600 acres of the ranch, he’s converted water rights to wildlife and conservation use. Ponds were created and wetlands were expanded. Native grasses like creeping wild rye and Great Basin wild rye were replanted.

“It was going along real well, then along comes Sempra,” Rumsey says. “Their threat to the environment operates on many levels. To us, the water is especially critical.”

Sempra’s claims to water rights are based on claims filed in 1999 by the Sam Jaksick family, which sold land and rights to the San Diego-based energy company. Rumsey and others have asked the state water engineer to do adjudication and find out who controls what water in the area. Rumsey remains optimistic, encouraged by Gov. Schwarzenegger’s call to reduce greenhouse gases and public pressure on California utilities not to purchase power from dirty coal facilities. Lawmakers in California and Nevada have enacted legislation to require that utilities buy increasing percentages of green power.

“There’s a new consciousness and bipartisan effort to solve this problem,” Rumsey says. “California doesn’t want to solve its energy problem by exporting pollution to neighboring states.”

It’s an uphill battle.

“This is a Fortune 500 company,” he says. “Spending another million on PR is nothing to them. … But the opposition is getting stronger and stronger every day. We think [Sempra] should drop out, but I don’t expect them to do that right away.”

For now, Rumsey enjoys watching native plants come back to life after decades of overgrazing had taken its toll on the Parker Ranch.

“All of the native grasses had been eaten down to the bone,” he says. “Now they’re thriving. It’s amazing how everything came back.”