Coal Rush! with Carbon Caps on the Horizon, U.S. Utilities Are Racing to Build Dozens of Antiquated Coal-Fired Power Plants

Article excerpt

For all the talk about renewable energy, the extraction industry is alive and well in the United States. In Texas, utility company TXU Energy has proposed building 11 new coal-fired power plants. American Electric Power, of Columbus, Ohio, is also seeking approval for several new coal plants. In the interior West, Minnesota-based Xcel Energy is building one of the nation's largest coal plants in Pueblo, Colorado, while planning for others in the next few years.

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These are but a sampling of the 150-plus new coal-fired plants being proposed throughout the United States, according to the Department of Energy's National Technology Laboratory. The vast majority of them will use conventional coal burning technology. (Elsewhere in the world, hundreds of new coal-fired plants are planned or under construction, some 550 of them in China alone. See "China and Her Coal," p. 14.) Of the 2004 U.S. total emissions of 5.9 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide (C[O.sub.2]), electric power generation contributed 2.3 billion metric tons, or 39 percent, and coal-fired plants accounted for 82 percent of that. Because C[O.sub.2] is the dominant human-caused greenhouse gas, that unheralded feat makes power plants among the biggest culprits behind climate change. And while power plant emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulates have dipped since the early 1990s, thanks to federal legislation, C[O.sub.2] emissions continue unabated. In fact, coal is making a comeback.

For nearly three decades no new U.S. coal plants came on line. But suddenly that's changed. "No question about it, this is a coal rush," says Robert McIlvaine, a coal industry consultant in Northfield, Illinois. "This is on par with the biggest expansion coal has ever seen, assuming all the ones proposed are actually built," adds Travis Madsen, a policy analyst with U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG).

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Nationwide support for coal dates back several decades. Between 1950 and 1997 the coal industry received more than US$70 billion in federal subsidies, or nearly $1.5 billion a year, according to a 2006 report from PIRG. In the Energy Policy Act of 2005, Congress approved an additional $7.8 billion for coal, including several billion for a "clean coal" research and development program.

But what accounts for the current feverish pace? Utilities point to all of us, our insatiable appetite for the must-have gadgets of the modern world, such as laptops and iPods, as well as plasma televisions, refrigerators, and other household appliances. And as the population grows, that demand--absent any serious drive for higher efficiency--will only head upward. "In the last decade our customer base has gone up 20 percent, and the amount of electricity per household is up 10 percent," says Mark Stutz, a spokesman for Xcel, which generates 66 percent of its kilowatthours of electricity from coal. "That's a lot of demand."

Coal is especially attractive now because its prices are low and stable relative to those of natural gas, which fluctuate unpredictably. But some critics of coal suspect that the current rush has more to do with fear and greed. With the specter of climate change looming ever larger in the public consciousness, utilities are anticipating that the time will soon come when legislators will slap a limit on carbon emissions from electric power generators and perhaps other industrial sources, and that the more coal-fired capacity the producers build before that day of reckoning, the higher their share of the total cap will be.

Of course, utilities have choices. Some climate change is inevitable, and it will get worse before it gets better. But utilities can still do plenty to stabilize and even reverse the course of climate change by dramatically cutting back on carbon emissions and by advancing solar, wind, and other renewable energy sources. …