A Desert Divide Grows over Power Plants ; in Arizona and Nevada, New Electric Plants Are Aimed Partly at California Users. Critics Say the Environmental Cost Will Be High

Article excerpt

When Dale Borger steps into his backyard, he wants to experience two things Arizona is famous for: fresh air and blue sky. But like others in this growing Phoenix suburb, he worries both will disappear if plans to expand a nearby power plant are successful.

"There are 21 schools within a three-mile radius of this one plant. The company is willing to put children at risk," he says, citing pollution concerns, "so they can make money selling electricity to California."

That company is the Salt River Project, a major power provider to metropolitan Phoenix. It says the plant will not put residents at risk and that it will serve Arizona customers, though a spokesman concedes that surplus power could be sold to California.

This local controversy is emblematic of a regionwide debate. Across Arizona and Nevada, more than two dozen new power plants are planned. Critics say they are aimed largely at California consumers - and will harm the local environment.

This desert drama, as it happens, exemplifies several hotly debated aspects of President Bush's national energy strategy. That plan, unveiled last week, calls for stepped-up building of new power plants: as many as 1,900 in three decades. To pave the way, it also would streamline site approval for new plants. And it sets free-market economics, not regulation, as the rule guiding supply and demand.

While supporters say such steps are the best way to ease energy shortfalls like California's, critics say moves like streamlined permits will benefit big business while leaving nearby residents out of the loop.

"This is like a new California gold rush," says Steve Brittle, president of the environmental group Don't Waste Arizona. "This whole trend is going in absolutely the wrong direction."

In Arizona and Nevada, as in states around the country, utilities are operating in an increasingly deregulated environment. Now, California's shortfalls have helped spark a surge in planned generating facilities in neighboring states. By 2003, the new generators in Arizona alone could provide enough electricity for 20 million people - even though the state population hovers between 5 million and 6 million.

While state officials say they are scrutinizing each new facility, critics say utilities will profit from California's shortage, while polluting the Southwest's air and draining its water.

Less-cumbersome permitting procedures are one key reason for the building boom. …