When you turn on your television set, air conditioner, or dishwasher, you are doing something that is at once mechanical and moral. The mechanical part stems from your rudimentary demand for electrons: You push a button, and somewhere in Texas a huge turbine throttles up, spins a magnet inside a coil, and initiates a massive electron-bumping chain reaction that travels in light-speed waves through miles of transmission lines to reach the circuits in your house. The moral complexity lies in the choices implicit in that action. In order to power your appliances, you must summon electricity from a vast sea of energy, a largely sealed electrical grid that stops at the Texas border. Generating plants across the state, powered variously by coal, gas, nuclear fission, wind, and water, dump electrical current into this grid, and by throwing a switch you engage them all. No matter what your politics are, how much of an environmentalist or conservationist you might be, or whether you actually give a damn where your electricity comes from, you’re complicit in every energy policy decision the state of Texas has made for the past fifty years.
And there are no inconsequential energy decisions. Coal and gas are relatively cheap but pollute the air and contribute to global warming; nuclear power does not pollute the air but creates radioactive waste that will be simmering in containment pits for thousands of years; hydropower is clean but requires the damming of rivers and the destruction of habitat; wind and solar are gentle but expensive, and electrical expense is a leading cause of eviction for poor people in America. In Texas’s grid, 91 percent of the power comes from coal and gas. That means that when you goose your air conditioner a few degrees, you are electing, de facto, to hasten global warming and add to the air you will breathe small but ineradicable amounts of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and mercury.
If this seems a bit dramatic, it is nonetheless empirically true, and it may explain the loud, organized protest that has erupted in the past few months over proposals to build seventeen giant new coal-fired power plants in Texas. The key word there is “coal.” Historically the dirtiest energy source, coal has been completely out of fashion for 25 years. When ground to dust and burned, it emits harmful chemicals, including fine particulate matter that causes asthma. Facilities that use it also burp forth large volumes of carbon dioxide, which is harmless to humans (it’s the fizz in Coke), but is the leading cause of global warming. Together, the seventeen proposed plants would more than double Texas’s reliance on this problematic fossil fuel.
The push to build the plants is being led by the Dallas-based former monopoly TXU, which last April announced a five-year plan to put eleven of them on line at a cost of $10 billion, the most ambitious such project anywhere in the country (the remaining six Texas plants are being proposed by other companies). Opposition came quickly from advocacy groups like Environmental Defense, Public Citizen, the Sierra Club, and several ad hoc business organizations, allied with a coalition of mayors and officials in 24 cities and counties organized by Dallas mayor Laura Miller. Lawsuits to block construction of the plants were filed at the state and federal levels. Web sites like stoptxu.com and stopthecoalplant.org sprang up. Since July, Miller has been tirelessly crisscrossing the state, raising money to challenge TXU’s permits for every one of its plants and trying to persuade the small towns where the facilities will be located to resist TXU’s plan in spite of the jobs that it offers. The controversy’s profile was raised during the gubernatorial campaign, when candidates Chris Bell, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, and Kinky Friedman all inveighed strongly against the plants to distinguish themselves from Governor Rick Perry, who had appeared at a TXU press conference to vow that “bureaucrats won’t be allowed to hold up approval,” a remarkable intervention for a governor to make in a regulatory process. And indeed, Perry later fast-tracked that process, cutting in half the amount of time needed for hearings and review. Approval for the coal plants will almost certainly become an issue in the 2007 legislative session.
At first glance, the fight over the new coal plants has the look of a classic conflict between the public good and the profit motive, and environmental groups have done their best to frame it that way: Multibillion-dollar utilities, abetted by corrupt politicians, want to put up smoke-belching power plants that will destroy our environment and sacrifice our health in the name of their bottom lines. The truth is much less simple, or obvious, or easy. Due to the decline of nuclear power, the rising cost of natural gas, the failure of government to promote energy conservation, and the state’s status as the most deregulated energy market in the country, Texas faces a severely limited set of choices when it comes to energy. And with a looming shortage of electricity, we have to make a decision.
Texas’s population will increase by six million in the next decade—the population of the state of Tennessee. Demand for power, already greater than in any other state, will grow by around two gigawatts per year, which is equivalent to the annual output of two large power plants. If we don’t add new capacity, we may experience brownouts and blackouts as early as 2011, and since it takes at least four years to build a plant, the future is now. Texas is the eleventh-largest energy market on earth (ahead of many nations, including Spain and South Korea). What we decide to do with TXU’s plan—and with the six other plant proposals—will have global significance, sending a powerful signal about how electric power is procured in the next decade and beyond.
THE REEMERGENCE of coal is, in the history of electricity generation, an astounding turn of events. After a quarter-century slumber, during which it had clear status as yesterday’s technology, coal is once