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Pros and cons of coal and renewable fuels

WASHINGTON - At about the same time the United States has seemed to reach a consensus that global warming is a human phenomenon that has to be confronted, the realization has also settled in that even reducing U.S. carbon dioxide emissions to zero - something the nation is nowhere near accomplishing - would not lower the planetary temperature enough to repeal climate change.

The reason given is that China and India are industrializing for all they're worth. China brings 10 conventional coal-burning power plants on line every month, it recently surpassed the United States as the world's no. 1 emitter of carbon dioxide or CO2, and it is heavily dependent on coal for its power generation. Although India burns its fossil fuels more responsibly, still it has a population in the billions that is going to want electric power in the foreseeable future. The burning of fossil fuels, especially coal, is the primary source of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, where it lingers to absorb solar heat and radiate it back to Earth again.

The human race is going to have to take its lumps from the climate changes brought on by global warming, according to Anthony Socci, a fellow of the American Meteorological Society. But how many lumps will we have to take?

At a Law Seminars International conference on tribal energy development in Washington, the main case for coal-fueled power plants was that America can demonstrate the ''clean'' burning of coal - a process that hopes to sequester carbon harmlessly underground instead of releasing it into the atmosphere - and then export the proven technology to China and India. Over the long haul, they'll adapt it for the overall benefit of the environment. Tribes can take part by following developments at the Desert Rock plant, which intends to model the ''clean'' burning of coal once it becomes operational.

It will still be burning coal, though, and that alone was objectionable to some members of an audience of more than 150 tribal leaders and decision-makers. Model projects for solar power generation in the southwest United States, biomass production at Warm Springs and wind power through a Navajo project were all the subjects of case studies at the conference. They affirmed what is already known - wind power has enormous potential for power generation; biomass energy, drawn from the woody debris of forest floors and the ''thinning'' of overly dense tree stands, should appeal to tribes with forest resources; and solar or ''photovoltaic'' power, drawn from the sun, can play a role in power generation among the many Southwestern tribes.

But it takes a long view indeed to foresee the day when such ''renewable'' fuels replace coal in the nation's energy regime. The Interior Department states that non-hydro renewable fuels provide 3.1 percent of national generating capacity at present, and estimates that it will provide only 3.7 percent of capacity 30 years from now. Solar power contributes only one-tenth of 1 percent of the national power generating capacity, according to J. Bennett Johnston, the former senator and founder of Johnston & Associates in Washington. Johnston added that the cost of producing a kilowatt-hour of electricity from solar power is 20 cents, compared with a cost of less than 3 cents for the same kilowatt-hour produced from pulverized coal. Greg Smith of the same firm said that a Navajo solar project from only years ago, despite full use by the local participants, never became self-sustaining financially. The project ended when a government grant ran out.

Biomass is likewise limited by cost factors, according to James D. Noteboom of Karnopp Peterson, attorneys for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. Not only must significant forest resources be at hand, but a biomass power generating facility must be built, usually in conjunction with a forest products manufacturing operation to maximize efficiencies. In Oregon, where plenty of biomass is available, biomass-capable mills are in short supply. ''A key limiting factor here is the location of the biomass material relative to a biomass power facility. Transport costs to move the biomass material are high relative to its value.''

As for wind power, the sky is still the limit on its potential. The problem here is transmission cost. A single wind turbine at Rosebud, invaluable to the tribe in terms of the power it provides and the learning curve it has launched, remains a single tower instead of a cluster of them - a lucrative wind farm - in large part because transmission costs are prohibitive. Smith estimated that building a high-power transmission line for the purpose of bringing Rosebud's wind power to the national grid would be $1 million per mile over many miles before it reached one of the really big lines on the national grid that still has capacity - i.e., that has not already been subscribed by other power providers. No investor will take on the risk at present, given the volatile energy market and the laws around it.

On the other hand, several speakers noted that the costs of solar and wind power are coming down, and the renewables projects profiled at the conference don't have to reach beyond reservation borders unless a tribe were to rely on them for economic development purposes. Tribes may turn to renewables projects for self-sufficiency or environmental reasons without necessarily engaging in the national quest for energy security.

In a conference crammed with complex information and multiple perspectives on it, perhaps the closest thing to a last word came from Nora Brownell, a former commissioner at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. As the energy industry and the public grapple with global warming, Brownell said, we can count on a regulatory regime on CO2 emissions. In its wake will come a refocus on alternative power sources. In addition, she said the nation's energy infrastructure is $200 billion in the hole for the next 20 years, and meeting infrastructure needs will create opportunities for jobs and services.

''There's an enormous amount of capital [investors] that wants to be a partner. ... Look for the new partners. There are a lot of them out there and they'll bring more to the partnership than previous ones. ... You are uniquely positioned to control your own destiny.''