The Salt River Project District board on Sept. 13 approved a nearly $900 million expansion of the Coolidge Generating Station, which burns natural gas. The decision is wrong for SRP customers and for all Arizonans, for a variety of reasons. Here are the top five:
The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report has shown that this decade is our last chance to transform our energy system to zero greenhouse gas emissions before irreversible damage is done to our climate. Producing, transmitting, storing, and burning natural gas emits greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane. Expanding the Coolidge Power Plant would lock SRP into using natural gas for decades, at the precise time when we need to be moving away from fossil-fuel sources and toward clean energy-efficiency and renewable-energy technologies.
The utility claims they will use Coolidge as a “peaker plant” and will run only when demand is high. If true, it is a terrible strategy to not pay back or profit from your investment. Solar and wind are already cost-competitive with new natural gas plants and, when used dynamically with other technologies like batteries, energy-efficiency measures, and demand-response programs, provide reliable electric service during peak-use times. SRP should have issued a technology-neutral, competitive procurement process to discover the most affordable option for SRP customers. In addition to plant costs, customers will have to pay for the generating fuel. In fact, SRP customers are about to see an average 3.9% increase in their bill solely due to natural gas and other fuel costs. With energy efficiency and renewable technologies, there are no fuels and no fuel-related costs. The sad fact is that customers will be on the hook for this massive investment for several decades — whether the plant and its fuel are economical or not. In addition, expanding the gas plant will impede progress on renewable-energy adoption as special interests seek out politicians to protect their investment.
Did you know Arizona must transport all of its natural gas fuel from other states? Last winter, when most of Texas froze over, oil and gas wells stopped producing, which led to a natural gas shortage. In fact, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott threatened to stop natural gas supplies from shipping to other states, and gas prices spiked. Here in Arizona, utilities asked customers to conserve electricity during that time, in the event of a statewide gas shortage. Extreme weather also impacts natural gas power plants. In extreme weather, gas plants experience a decrease in output and, across the globe, unusually hot summers have led to gas plants completely shutting down, leading to blackouts.
Recent groundwater supply models have found that Pinal County’s groundwater will be stressed in the coming decades. Natural gas steam turbine units, like the ones at the Coolidge Power Plant, use water to operate. Arizona is already water-stressed, and this situation will only worsen. SRP should be looking to other resources that do not dry up our state’s precious, and nonrenewable, water supplies.
In just the past month, Arizona experienced two explosions, and both blasts are suspected to be caused by natural gas pipeline leaks. One explosion occurred in Coolidge, across the street from the Coolidge Gas Generating Station. Tragically, two people were killed, including a child, and third person was severely injured. The other explosion occurred in Chandler, causing severe injury to four people and forcing families and businesses to evacuate for hours. While actual explosions are somewhat uncommon, gas leaks are not. Gas leaks expose all Arizonans to unnecessary risks not found with renewables or energy efficiency technologies. Natural gas is bad for our environment and human health. Other technologies like solar and energy efficiency offer cost-competitive reliability for our electric grid. The SRP board should outright reject this proposed natural gas plant expansion and embrace clean energy for a better future for all Arizonans.
Lauren Kuby is a two-term Tempe councilmember, a senior global futures scientist at Arizona State University, and a candidate for the Arizona Corporation Commission.
Editor’s note: This guest commentary was revised to reflect the SRP board’s approval of the project.