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The Planet

Electrifying Options

The Planet, July/August 1997, Volume 4, number 6

Global warming is the top energy priority for the Sierra Club, but staff and volunteers are also working on other issues. Some, like utility restructuring, energy efficiency and renewables, directly relate to global warming. Others, like nuclear waste, pose severe environmental threats.

Utility Restructuring: Opportunity or Obstacle?

Electric utilities have long operated as regulated monopolies. But last year, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission mandated wholesale competition among utilities. This will allow the utilities to buy and sell power to each other, and, depending on how restructuring plays out in different states, consumers to choose their electricity provider. In California, preparations are already under way to open the market to competition in January 1998. Other states are not far behind. While it's clear that some form of restructuring of the industry is going to take place, it's unclear whether or not it will help galvanize the move toward cleaner energy sources.

Nancy Hirsh, chair of the Sierra Club's Energy Committee, says deregulation could cut pollution by expanding the role of efficiency and renewables, save consumers money and retire some nuclear plants early -- if handled intelligently. If not, it could add to pollution by increasing reliance on inexpensive and polluting coal plants, cost consumers more and shortchange nuclear-waste cleanup.

Restructuring could jump-start renewable energy, like solar and wind power, which has long suffered from insufficient funding and continues to be overlooked in favor of cheap and heavily subsidized oil and coal and relatively clean, inexpensive natural gas. Ironically, the success of conservation and efficiency has also kept renewables from realizing their enormous potential.

This is where the Sierra Club is working to even the playing field, both through influencing public policy and, in Colorado and California, through pursuing the possibility of getting into the energy business.

The Rocky Mountain Chapter, for example, has been working with the Public Service Company of Colorado on a program that would allow electricity consumers to earmark blocks of wind-generated power. They would indicate in their bill that their money goes toward wind power. Linda Berti, chapter energy committee chair, says a utility study found that 5 percent of customers -- 50,000 people -- would be willing to pay more for wind energy. The Sierra Club is investigating ways to promote this project by having the chapter collaborate with PSC in marketing wind power.

Rich Ferguson, energy chair of Sierra Club California, is working on a similar venture, proposing that the Club license a member-owned cooperative of electricity consumers in California to purchase clean power. Once the utility monopoly is dismantled, says Ferguson, "People who don't want to buy polluting power won't have to." It could be the role of the Sierra Club, suggests Ferguson, to monitor or license clean energy sources.

The Colorado and California proposals are currently under discussion, as is the national Club policy on utility restructuring.

No Nukes -- No Waste

The battle over nuclear waste heated up this year as friends of the nuclear industry introduced a Senate bill, S. 104, that would ship the most dangerous substance humans have ever created over roads and rails to an open-air cement parking pad in the Nevada desert. The bill sets dangerously high radiation exposure standards and preempts environmental laws. The bill passed the Senate, but pressure from Sierra Club activists helped persuade 34 senators to vote against it, helping ensure that President Clinton's promised veto would be upheld. The House is now debating an equally unsound nuclear-waste bill, H.R. 1270, and the Club is working to defeat it.

One hot issue for the Club's Nuclear Waste Task Force is how to deal with the hazardous weapons-grade plutonium that is piling up since the United States and former Soviet Union have scaled back their nuclear arsenals. This high-level nuclear waste is not only dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years, it must also be safeguarded from rogue nations or terrorists who might want it to make bombs.

The U.S. government is proposing two disposal approaches -- one, making the waste plutonium into ceramic or glass "logs" and burying it; and two, turning it into reactor fuel called "MOX" and burning it. Both plans are problematic, says Paul P. Craig, professor emeritus of engineering at the University of California- Davis and a member of the Club's Nuclear Waste Task Force, but the MOX scheme is more so. Craig and the Club are working to convince the government to abandon the MOX approach in favor of burial.

For more information: Contact Nancy Hirsh, (206) 324-3355; Rich Ferguson (916) 974-1962, rich@ceert.org; Linda Berti (303) 863-1496, linda.berti@rmc.sierraclub.org; or Paul Craig (510) 370-9729; ppcraig@ucdavis.edu.


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