Will Big Stone also be replaced by renewable power?

DURAND, WISCONSIN - The cancellation of the proposed Big Stone II coal-fired power plant brings back memories of the cancellations of the proposed power plants at Durand, Wisconsin.

Northern States Power Co. (NSP, now Xcel Energy) in 1973 proposed that the "Tyrone Nuclear Park," initially with two 1,150 megawatt (MW) reactors, be built at Durand, Wis., at a time when a national debate was raging over the acceptability of nuclear power.

This debate had begun when it was shown that NSP's Monticello Nuclear Power plant would release what the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, in 1969, ruled to be excessive radioactive pollution to the air and to the Mississippi River. (After some fun and games involving the courts, demonstrations and the like, the federal Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was forced to tighten its radiation pollution regulations to the levels proposed by Minnesota.

The proposed Tyrone nukes provoked spirited discussions both in Wisconsin and in Minnesota.

The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC, created after congress abolished the AEC in 1974) issued a construction permit for the Tyrone plants in 1977. However, in 1979, the Wisconsin Public Service Commission denied a permit on the grounds that there would be insufficient demand for electricity. NSP canceled the project on Dec. 23, 1979 (perhaps hoping that the news would not be noted during the excitement of Christmas Day). A few years later I was told, but did not personally see, that there was a little shrine in NSP's headquarters commemorating the Tyrone plant cancellation and the saving for NSP of considerable cost and further embarrassment.

Xcel Energy later proposed building a 750 megawatt (MW) coal-fired power plant at the Durand, Wis., site. This proposal, like the earlier proposed nuclear plant, brought heavy criticism. The public opposition focused on the need to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions — coal produces more greenhouse pollution than any other conventional fossil fuel. The regulatory opposition was focused on health impacts of pollution from the plant, primarily small particulate pollution produced by coal burners.

Like the nuclear plant before it, the proposed Tyrone coal plant was canceled — in 2006. Xcel then filed an application with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission for a 375 megawatt combined Manitoba Hydro and wind power package.

There seem to be some lessons here. Nuclear power was touted in the 1960s and 1970s as being "too cheap to meter" and as being a "clean" way to avoid "dirty coal." Work done in Minnesota and elsewhere showed that atomic energy was not clean, that there seemed to be no way to dispose of the radioactive waste, and that expansion of civilian atomic energy presented the opportunity for national atomic bomb programs.

"Too cheap to meter" was a dream that brought several electric utilities to the brink of bankruptcy. No U.S. nuclear power plant ordered after 1973 has operated.

Utilities then returned to coal — big time. Within a few years "clean coal" was forced by concerns with the health and environmental impacts of acid rain — most of which was caused by sulfur dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants. The electric utilities' knee-jerk response was to scream that sulfur removal was just too expensive, but experience was to show the cost to be low and the benefits high.

But acid rain was just the tip of the iceberg of coal's environmental costs.

The greenhouse effect and global warming have been understood since the 1890s. The explosion of carbon dioxide pollution plus the availability of computers powerful enough to run credible climate models showed, by the 1970s, that climatic change was a very real threat, not just a hypothetical risk for future generations.

Controlling global warming is now on the top of the international energy/environment policy agenda. All responsible actors now accept that emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases must be greatly reduced if we are to avoid what appear to be catastrophic adverse global impacts. Hence, new coal-fired power plants are simply not acceptable — unless they would employ the as-yet untested carbon capture and storage.

The necessity of curbing carbon dioxide pollution plus a slowing demand for electricity, in large part because of increasing efficiency with which electricity is used, spelled the doom of the Big Stone coal burner and many of its siblings. Yet, as it was with controlling sulfur dioxide pollution, most utilities, including Xcel, are claiming that reducing carbon dioxide pollution would be much too expensive and would result in lost jobs. Some things do not change.

The second noteworthy observation is that the projected electricity demand has been decreasing as people and firms take advantage of the abundant cost-effective ways to use electricity more efficiency. The 1970s "Tyrone Nuclear Park" was to satisfy a new demand for 2,300 MW of power generation. By the 1990s the proposed "need" for new generating capacity at the Tyrone site had shrunk to 750 MW. The plan now is for 375 MW of renewable electricity. I suspect that the so-called shortfall in electricity supply because of the cancellation of the 500 MW Big Stone coal plant will be met with a modest increase of wind power.

Finally, as with almost all major reforms, the movement to more sustainable power has been the result of actions taken by individuals and by states — Washington continues to reluctantly follow, not to lead.

Energy remains the ultimate resource and, at the same time, the ultimate pollutant. The path toward a sustainable energy system is being taken, but it will be a long trip.


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