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‘Coal Night’ Promises ‘Serious Fun’

Movies, videos, experts push back on energy firms’ media blitz

June 1, 2009 | By Glenn Puit
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Fighting Goliath: Texas Coal Wars, which played the Sundance Film Festival, headlines Coal Night at the State Theater in Traverse City.
TRAVERSE CITY—Responding to a coal industry media blitz claiming its product is clean, cheap, and abundant, a Grand Traverse-area citizens group is presenting an evening of movies, videos, speakers, and even a mock beauty contest all meant to tell a very different story.

The evening, sponsored by Co-opConversations.org, takes place at the State Theatre in downtown Traverse City. Organizers say it will be both fun and informative, yet will directly challenge the coal industry’s claims with facts and analysis rarely seen in mainstream media.

The event, called Coal Night at the State Theatre, is free and is scheduled for 6 p.m. on June 8.

Headlining the evening will be a documentary that debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, Fighting Goliath: Texas Coal Wars, narrated by Robert Redford.

Speakers include a municipal and coal plant financing expert, two successful community organizers from Colorado, and a former Michigan lawmaker who supports enacting new laws that would help Michiganders become profitable clean-energy entrepreneurs.

The two-hour show also included video greetings from top NASA scientist James Hansen and author Bill McKibben. Both were among the first to warn the public that CO2 emissions, many of them tied to coal burning, were changing our plane’s climate.

But the event will be upbeat, not gloomy, according to its producer, Interlochen resident Tom Karas.

“We intend this to be a lot of fun as we look closely at some of the facts that are missing from the statewide debate on coal, clean energy, and jobs,” said Mr. Karas, who is also he founder of the Michigan Energy Alternatives Project. He and several other area residents launched Co-opConversations.org two months ago in order to persuade several member-owned Michigan utilities to reveal what their involvement in a proposed new Rogers City coal plant would do to their customers’ electricity rates.

Money Matters
Coal Night’s keynote speaker is Tom Sanzillo, a public finance expert and former deputy comptroller for New York State. Mr. Sanzillo, who now works for the New York City-based economic analysis firm TR Rose Associates, has analyzed the costs of many proposed coal plants around the country, including the one that Midland-based Wolverine Power Cooperative wants to build in Rogers City. A local utility, Cherryland Electrict Cooperative, would help finance the 600 MW plant and buy virtually all of its power from the plant.

Mr. Sanzillo said in an interview with the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service last week that, health and climate concerns aside, building a coal plant is a poor financial investment in today’s economy.

“The market forces remain hostile to the development of new coal plants,” he said. “Construction costs in the last five or six years have skyrocketed, even with the recession. Because of the global nature of the heavy construction market, there have been no real decreases in building a power plant. What cost you $1 billion in 2002 is closer to $3 billion now.”

Those excessive costs, Mr. Sanzillo said, are inevitably passed onto consumers. That mean customers of the electric cooperatives that get their energy from the proposed Rogers City plant would see significant spikes in their bills.

“My major message is that across the country, communities are rethinking coal,” he said. “Every time communities do serious financial analysis of coal, they reject coal plants, and it’s for good reason. It is the finances. The finances are wrong right now. Coal used to be a good investment. That’s no longer true, and it’s going to remain that way for the foreseeable future.”

Two Coal Warriors
Coal Night will also feature remarks from two successful leaders of the fight to slow down America’s coal rush. Just four years ago, utilities had plans to build more than 160 new plants around the country. But more than 90 of those proposals have been cancelled since then, mostly for financial reasons.

One of the people who have led the unprecedented pushback is Leslie Glustrom, a Coloradoan. Ms. Glustrom, who quit her job a few years ago to try to help address climate change, said she will speak at the Coal Night forum about how renewable energy sources, such as wind turbines and solar panels, are far more cost efficient and friendly to the environment than new coal-fired power plants.

The community organizer noted in a news service interview that Americans and Michiganders are at a critical time in history. The risks associated with climate change are so severe, she said, that construction of new coal plants should stop immediately. Coal plants are known to be the largest single source of manmade CO2 emissions, the leading cause of climate change.

“In these important moments in history, people come out, and they get the job done,” Ms. Glustrom said. “But with climate change, we are more than a couple of decades late, and it’s a very serious problem.”

Another Coal Night speaker, Nancy LaPlaca, studies the economics of extracting CO2 emissions from coal plant smokestacks and storing them underground, a process called "carbon capture and sequestration," or CCS. Many utility and coal company officials say CCS technology could stop the damage that coal burning is causing and allow utilities to continue the practice.

Ms. LaPlaca, who advocates for increased reliance on renewables for power generation, disagrees. She’s performed extensive research on CCS and renewable energy on behalf of the private sector, Congress, and state governments, and told the news service that the financial numbers simply don’t crunch for the controversial process.

“A lot of these carbon sequestration projects, when you look at them hard enough, the worse they look,” she said. “It really underscores that we need to reduce our coal burning. Coal-fired plants account for 1/3 of greenhouse gas emissions. Yet we are capable of quitting burning coal. Wind and solar…there are lots of solutions out there. We can do something about this.”

Homegrown Energy
Also speaking will be former state Representative Kathleen Law. She was the first lawmaker in the country to propose what are called “feed-in tariffs” that would encourage homeowners and small businesses to invest in—and profit from—homegrown renewable energy production.

The proposal, Ms. Law said, would spur the manufacture of small-scale solar panels and wind turbines and create thousands of new manufacturing and installation jobs. But, despite similar programs’ well-documented success in other countries, particularly Germany and Spain, state House leaders let her proposal die without a hearing in the last session of the Michigan Legislature.

She told the news service that this year’s second attempt to pass feed-in tariffs in Michigan, spearheaded by state Representative Lee Gonzales, appears headed for the same fate, something Ms. Law said is inexcusable.

“What the hell are they doing?” she demanded. “Why are they failing us so badly? This will bring thousands of jobs to the state, and nobody manufacturers like Michigan. Just set the policy in place and get out of the way.”

More information on Coal Night is available at http://www.co-opconversations.org/.

Glenn Puit, a veteran investigative journalist, is a policy specialist for the Michigan Land Use Institute. Tom Karas, mentioned in this story, is the founder of Michigan Energy Alternatives Project, and frequently collaborates with the Institute on clean-energy advocacy efforts in northwest Lower Michigan.

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