Balancing act 

Environmentally speaking, providing power in the U.S. is a big business with a dirty little secret.

While electricity is one of the cleanest forms of energy, the production of the stuff — largely requiring fossil fuel-fired plants — is an environmental mess.

According to the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund and the Environmental Protection Agency, the generation of electric power produces more pollution than any other single industry in the United States.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration cites the power system in the United States as the largest in the world with more than twice the generating power of China, its nearest competitor. Power providers in Oklahoma say they’re caught in a balancing act: trying to provide low-cost power, while doing the least harm to the environment.

Just last year, the EPA included electric generating units in its new reporting regulations, a likely forerunner to tighter emissions legislation for the industry.

Spokesman Brian Alford of OGE Energy Corp., Oklahoma’s largest supplier of electricity, said the company started offering customers home audits to locate possible energy leaks.

“We’re helping customers be better consumers of their energy,” Alford said. “That is really one of the primary drivers behind the smart grid initiative, and installing smart meters begins to put that data or information in the customer’s hands.”

Public Service Company of Oklahoma, delivers 35 percent of electricity in Oklahoma and is the state’s second largest provider. Spokesman Ed Bettinger said in 2009 approximately 43 percent of the energy PSO delivered to customers was generated from coalfired sources.

“Any decision regarding the future of coal generation must consider the impact it will have on all of our customers’ bills in the near term and over time,” Bettinger said.

PSO has added wind generation to account for roughly 13 percent of its power generation, according to Bettinger. While definitely a cleaner form of energy, industry experts say solar energy technology hasn’t advanced far enough to unseat production spurred by fossil fuels, hydroelectric or even wind power.

The Grand River Dam Authority provides electricity to its public power customers using a combination of hydroelectric dams, natural-gas turbines and coal-fired steam turbines. GRDA is evaluating the merits of integrating windbased generation into its portfolio of energy sources, said company spokesman Justin Alberty.

“GRDA uses coal in its generation mix because it is abundant, reliable and affordable,” Alberty said. “GRDA complies with very strict government regulations for coal generation, including using a sulfur dioxide scrubber.”

Sulfur dioxide is the largest byproduct from coal-fired plants. The EDF cites the electrical production industry as responsible for more than 60 percent of sulfur dioxide emissions and 40 percent of carbon emissions in the U.S.

Founded in 1906 as an intrastate natural gas pipeline business, Oklahoma Natural Gas’ parent company, ONEOK, serves customers in Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas. While the majority of customers are residential, some of its largest clients are power-producing companies themselves. A cleaner fuel alternative than coal, gas companies are now taking an even larger role in the production of America’s electric energy.

“We certainly think we are part of the solution in that regard,” ONG spokesman Don Sherry said.

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