News and analysis about renewable energy in California.

Is Los Angeles Really Coal-Free? Kinda, Sorta, Maybe

L.A. has more work to do to become coal-free | Photo: Kym/Flickr/Creative Commons License

A public event today made it as official as can be: the City of Los Angeles will derive none of its electrical power from coal 12 years from now. The city's Department of Water and Power (DWP) will stop buying power from Arizona's coal-burning Navajo Generating Station in 2015, and do likewise with Utah's Intermountain Power Plant by 2025. It's a landmark achievement, making L.A. the largest U.S. city to do so, and those who fret about coal's contribution to global warming owe those who brought this day about a debt of gratitude.

But Greater Los Angeles still has work to do before it can call itself "coal-free."

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Don't get me wrong: today's a landmark day, and LADWP's plans, are well worth today's celebration-cum-press conference, where former Vice President Al Gore and Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune joined Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to mark the nation's largest public utility's commitment to kick the coal habit. "Mayor Villaraigosa's decision to end Los Angeles' reliance on dirty coal and guide the city to a more sustainable future is a bold step on the path towards solving the climate crisis," said Gore, who now chairs the Climate Reality Project. "This courageous action should serve as an example to leaders all across our country. We have the tools at hand, it's time to act."

Angelenos worried about their region's contribution to coal use don't need to look too far afield to find places where they can act. As it happens, Wilmington-based firm the Metropolitan Stevedore Company -- generally called Metro Ports -- is the sole remaining investor still hanging onto its involvement in a proposed coal export terminal in Coos Bay, Oregon. Fellow investors Mitsui & Co. and Korean Electric Power dropped out of the project earlier this month, and Metro Ports has until the end of the month to decide whether to renegotiate its contract with the Port of Coos Bay.

The terminal, one of five proposed for the Pacific Northwest, would export millions of tons of coal each year to Asian energy markets to be burned in power plants. This would counter much of the progress the United States has made in lowering its emissions. What good is cutting our carbon dioxide footprint domestically if we just turn around and ship that coal to someone else to burn? CO2 emitted into the atmosphere from one continent affects the whole globe.

If we can cut down on coal use here and then ramp up coal exports, we undermine our own progress on climate change. Whether the coal is burned in Utah or Uzbekistan makes little difference to rising sea levels -- which pose more of a threat to Metro Ports' headquarters, ironically, than to most places in California.

So by all means let's raise a glass to the DWP for weaning itself off coal. And let's remember that the battle for coal-conscious Angelenos isn't yet over. As long as local companies speculate in coal burning, coal exports, or coal mining, L.A. isn't coal-free

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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The question I have is: Are they fully and irreversibly closing down these coal plants or are those plants just going to sell their dirty power to another utility, resulting in no net GHG reductions and no net coal reductions?

DWP's feeble, undersized, limited and cheap "FIT" (in name only) is hardly going to make a dent in the power use of the DWP service area since it locks out 90% of rooftops and ratepayers from participating. The system sizes, the cheap and ridiculously complicated rate structure, the pointless caps - it's like they looked at the "FIT" the state of CA has been futilely offering for the past 5 years and said "let's follow this failed model instead of Germany's winning model."

Until rates skyrocket, net metering is another way of saying "net loss" to ratepayers who want to participate but who find that they don't waste enough power to make it financially viable and don't get paid for producing more power than they use. Net metering DISINCENTIVIZES energy conservation, whereas legitimate FITs incentivize it.

In other words, I am suspicious that this is more grandstanding without any real, lasting commitment to ratepayers, reliability, decentralization, democratization or net GHG reductions. I would love to be wrong, though, so let me know!

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Sheila,

Good points. Hopefully other states - Arizona in particular - will improve their renewable portfolios. Competition from renewables, natural gas and added costs from pollution standards should make these coal plants more expensive than the alternative and they will end up being shut down.

My take on this:
- Why is it taking LADWP so long to do this.? Why not do this within 5 years? Not only could we move ourselves off of this coal sooner , we should also be bringing this energy generation in state rather than importing.
- Solar is going to "takeover" in California. By 2025, solar will be the dominant supplier of summertime electricity. Hopefully, we will have some sort of energy storage figured out by then as well. If LADWP is doing any decent analysis of the trends they should be able to see the writing on the wall.