Of lights and lungs

In the great power panic of 2001, the rush to get new electricity plants on line raises serious questions about how the state will manage a much longer term and much more pernicious problem: its dirty air.

A volley of executive orders issued by Gov. Gray Davis last week are aimed at producing 20,000 more megawatts over the next four years by streamlining the environmental review process for new plants. It would allow existing plants to operate longer hours (and consequently produce more pollution), and allow some plants to postpone retrofits that would reduce emissions of nitrogen oxide (NOx), one of the major components of smog.

While the governor has said that his plan would bridge the energy gap without hurting the air, environmentalists and health advocates aren’t so sure.

“It doesn’t make much sense to rush to build new fossil fuel plants if it’s going to lead to greater health and energy problems down the road,” said Susannah Churchill with the California Public Interest Research Group.

She suggested that the governor’s plan should have made energy conservation and the construction of renewable energy facilities, like wind power and solar, a top priority over the construction of more natural gas plants.

No one is sure how much air pollution will be caused by the coming boom in plant construction. Electricity generation now accounts for 2 to 5 percent of the smog forming NOx in the air on any given day.

The plan calls for power plant operators who run longer hours to pay mitigation fees that would help offset the pollution. The details would be up to local air districts, but fees could be used to replace dirty diesel truck engines or purchase low emission vehicles for government fleets.

But the plan is very broadly worded, and critics worry that the governor is trading clean air for a short term fix of electricity.

“We believe that people, even in the midst of this energy crisis, are concerned about their health and about cleaning up the air,” said Bonnie Holmes-Gen with the American Lung Association.

“Despite all of the panic, people need to keep some perspective. We have a short-term [energy] gap. We need to look at how we can get the possible sources of generation on line first,” Holmes-Gen added.