Casualties of the crisis

Power push will dirty the summer’s air

Jessica Bryant has a hard time rounding the bases when the air is dirty.

Jessica Bryant has a hard time rounding the bases when the air is dirty.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Clad in her softball team’s black jersey and shorts, Jessica Bryant sprinted across the field to take her place at the plate. Jessica, a cherub-faced, energetic 11-year-old, is a proud member of her undefeated team, the Tornados, originally named the Rolling Blackouts.

The Tornados’ winning streak may continue as the days get warmer, but it may be without Jessica, who suffers from asthma. Hotter days bring smoggier skies, which can cause her air passages to constrict, so severely at times that she can only breathe with the help of a machine.

Jessica, who also loves to run, swim and roller skate, is one of the thousands of asthmatic kids who must stay indoors when the air is bad. Being cooped up inside is hard on both Jessica and her parents, but as her dad, Stu Bryant, noted, “There is nothing worse than not being able to breathe.” And he should know because he also suffers asthma attacks, which are akin to trying to breathe with a plastic bag over your head.

If official predictions prove correct, Jessica and others with weak respiratory systems will spend less time outdoors this summer. The number of air alerts usually rise with the thermometer, but this summer, the energy crisis could increase both the number and severity of bad air days.

The running of old, dirty power plants full-blast, firing up of countless backup diesel motors and adding new power plants at a frenzied pace to pump out electrons are major concerns for environmentalists and health advocates.

Old power plants without modern air pollution controls release high levels of nitrogen oxides (NOx), a precursor to smog. Their high pollution results in average NOx emission levels reaching 100 parts per million when air conditioners strain the grid and 50 ppm at other times, said John White, head of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies (CEERT). The cleanest natural gas power plant emits about 5 ppm.

The head of the California Environmental Protection Agency announced that a clean-up program is in the works for two dozen of the old clunker plants, which will run full-throttle this summer as we struggle to avoid blackouts.

However, only some of those spewing plants will be retrofitted this summer. Clean-air advocates have called for dealing with the energy crisis with a massive boost in conservation, energy efficiency and renewable measures, followed by powering up the least polluting plants.

But the fossil-fueled power plant pushers seem to be calling the shots, with air rules weakened to bump up electricity supplies. Several local air boards will allow old plants lacking pollution controls to exceed emission limits so they can run full-tilt to help keep the lights on.

Governor Gray Davis has pushed conservation, including signing legislation allocating $800 million for conservation and renewable energy projects, but he has repeatedly said the only way out of the deregulation mess is to build more traditional power plants.

Earlier this year, the governor issued vaguely worded emergency orders to speed up the licensing of new fossil-fueled generation projects, claiming air protections would be maintained. But Bonnie Holmes-Gen, lobbyist for the American Lung Association, noted the orders “send a message that we must keep the lights on at all costs.”

As proof, new generating units built to meet peak demand will be allowed to emit five times more NOx this summer than next year. In addition, some generators hope to fire up old, shuttered boiler plants and are seeking a green light from the California Energy Commission.

Republicans, however, complain that Davis has not gone far enough in pushing aside air rules, even though he whittled the plant licensing process down to four months last fall and slashed it to 21 days for small plants that will run to meet soaring demand on hot afternoons. A number of bills are in the pipeline that would further undercut environmental safeguards in the name of higher electricity supplies.

When asked about the air implications of relaxing air quality protections to get more generation, the Assembly Republican caucus spokesman Jaime Fisfis said, “This is a crisis and needs to be dealt with in a crisis manner.”

For Jessica and others suffering from respiratory ailments, the worsening air quality is the crisis.

The likelihood of significant increases in the use of dirty diesel generation—which provides an independent source of fuel for farmers’ water pumps, hospitals and other businesses—is further bad news. Uncontrolled diesel spews out high levels of NOx, at levels vastly exceeding new plants, along with carcinogenic particulate matter and dioxin.

Diesel-fueled trucks and buses contribute about 15 percent of the state’s air pollution, according to the California Air Resources Board, but just how much more dangerous soot will be added by diesel generators in and around the Sacramento region is unknown.

“Anyone could go out and buy a diesel backup generator and we’d probably never know unless someone complained about it,” noted Larry Robinson, legislative liaison with the Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District.

The looming question is how often diesel engines will be powered up and whether they will be used to prevent or respond to outages—and if so, how soon.

“We have no idea how long the generators will be running or how many blackouts there will be,” said Sandra Spelliscy, lobbyist of the Planning and Conservation League.

But the numbers and politics don’t mean much to Moe Bryant, Jessica’s mother. From her perspective, policy-makers are siding with industry at the expense of the health and well-being of children like Jessica.